Portion distortion: Do you want that super-sized?

November 07, 2000

Portion distortion: Do you want that super-sized?

Do you want that super-sized? As Americans increasingly cruise through the drive-through for meals, it is evident that portion size matters to people. In most cases, the bigger the portion, the better. Could there be a link between increased portion sizes and the obesity epidemic in the United States? Are super-sized foods contributing to more super-sized people?


Misjudging food-serving sizes is one of the most common mistakes people make when evaluating their diet. Portion distortion is widespread in the United States and part of the reason Americans keep getting larger.

Fast-food restaurants are notorious for super-sizing these days. In the 1950s, a serving of french fries was about 2 ounces. Today, a serving of french fries at most fast-food restaurants is two to three times that size. Likewise, a 1950s fast-food hamburger was about one ounce; today, hamburgers usually are 4 to 10 ounces. Soft drinks used to come in 7-ounce bottles, then 12-ounce ones. Today, 16- and 20-ounce bottles are common.


Super-sizing is not just limited to fast-food places. The next time you purchase a packaged bagel, muffin or cookie, check out the number of servings contained in the product - sometimes as many as three or four. Even dinner plates today tend to be larger than those sold 20 years ago.

So, what is a serving, why is it important to think about serving size and how do you judge a regular serving from a super-sized one? Nutrition facts labels and most dietary recommendations are based on standard serving sizes. In the Food Guide Pyramid, the recommended number of servings per food group varies to accommodate individual needs, but the size of a single serving remains the same. For example, 6 to 11 servings of breads, cereal, rice, pasta and other grains are recommended daily, with a serving being the equivalent of a 1-ounce slice of bread. A small bagel equals two servings. Many of the bagels sold in specialty shops today contain as many as four servings from the grain group.

Serving size tips

Recognizing appropriate serving sizes is as important as knowing how many servings you need. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when selecting your serving sizes:

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> 1/2 cup of fruit, vegetables, pasta or rice = a small fist

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> 3 ounces of cooked meat, poultry or fish = a deck of cards

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> 1 ounce of cheese = 4 dice

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> 1 teaspoon of margarine or butter = a thumb tip

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> 1 serving of snack foods (pretzels, chips) = a small handful

In addition, here are some tips to keep in mind to control portion sizes:

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> In restaurants, eat half of the entree and take the rest home for the next day.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Avoid upsizing meals at fast-food restaurants.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Use smaller plates and bowls at home. It will look like you are eating more.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Buy smaller packages of candy, popcorn and chips, or take these foods out of their package and serve them on a plate. When you see how much of these foods you are consuming, you will most likely eat less.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Eat slower and savor your food. It takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to signal your brain that you are full.

Learning to recognize and control portion sizes is a crucial step in eating a nutritious diet and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

If you occasionally overdo it at a meal, balance that indulgence by eating less at the next meal or by increasing your physical activity.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences extension educator for Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County. Maryland Cooperative Extension programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, religion or national origin.

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