Correct Portion Sizes: How to Keep Portion Distortion in Check

Quick tip: Ensure you are getting proper portion sizes with this easy portion size guide using hand symbols

With restaurants offering enormous plates of food, drink cups often in "Big Gulp" sizes and snacks sold in king-sized packages, it can be hard to know how much to eat sometimes.

It's difficult to avoid eating bigger at home, too. The size of dinner plates, muffin tins and pizza pans have grown. Cars have larger cup holders to accommodate the drink sizes stores sell. As everything gets bigger, bigger starts to seem like the norm, distorting how we think about a serving size or the “right” amount. One study found that modern portion sizes of popular foods added an extra 50 to 150 calories.1 While that might not sound like too much, an extra 100 calories per day can pack on an extra 10 pounds of weight in a year!

Some meals appearing “average” in size can add up to a whole day’s worth of calories. A large order of french fries can contain as many as 1,000 calories. Add a hamburger and an extra-large soda, and you’re getting more than 2,000 calories in one sitting. And this isn't unusual. A study published in 2012 found that 96 percent of restaurant meals exceed USDA recommendations for fat, salt and overall calories.2

If you’re trying to maintain your weight or lose a few pounds, read on for some tips on how to estimate proper portion sizes, keep portions in check even when faced with big plates of food.

Serving Sizes: Then and Now

Food or beverage 1980s (calories) Today (calories)
Turkey sandwich 320 calories 820 calories
French fries 210 calories 610 calories
Bagel 140 calories 350 calories
Slice of pizza 500 calories 850 calories
Soda 85 calories 250 calories

Source: NYC Health

There are lots of easy ways to keep portion sizes under control, it just takes a little forethought and a handful of tricks that will help out a lot.

What you can do to Manage Your Portions:

  • Not sure what a portion size should be? Make sense of portion sizes by using hand symbols for portions.
  • Learn to read food labels. Pay attention to the number of servings contained in the package, then note the calorie and fat content per serving. If, for example, the label on a large muffin indicates that one serving has 250 calories and 10 grams of fat, and the muffin contains two servings, then you'll have eaten 500 calories and 20 grams of fat from that muffin.
  • ŸCompare marketplace portions to recommended serving sizes. If you eat a marketplace portion of something, compare its size to what's recommended by the USDA. For example, a standard bagel is two ounces and counts as two servings from the bread/cereal/grain food group. A marketplace bagel weighs nearly six ounces and counts as six servings. A pasta dinner from your favorite restaurant might add up to six or more servings of grains as well. If you eat a 12-ounce piece of meat, you're consuming three ounces more than your whole days' recommendation!
  •  Repackage supersize bags. Supersize bags may be more economical, but they can also encourage you to overeat. If you buy huge bags of chips or pretzels, for example, repackage the contents into smaller containers.
  • Share a meal. Order an appetizer and split one main course with another person when you go out for a meal. Share an order of fries with everyone at your table. Order one dessert and some extra forks. Four people can enjoy a few bites of a decadent dessert and it’s probably just the right amount!  
  • Eat half or less. If you're not sharing a meal, eat half of what you're served and take the rest home to enjoy as another meal. You might even ask for the box when your plate arrives and pack it up right away.
  • Use a smaller plate. At home, serve your meals on smaller plates. Your plate will look full, but you'll be eating less.
  • Slow down and skip second helpings. Eat one reasonable serving and don't immediately go back for seconds. Give yourself time to digest and serve yourself more food if you are still hungry. 

Remember, the more portion control you practice, the more you can eat all of your favorite foods!

1Young LR, Nestle M. J Am Diet Assoc. 2003;103(2):231-4. 

2Wu HW, Sturm R. Public Health Nutrition 2013;16(1)87-96.