Eat how much?

March 20, 2002|BY KEVIN CLAPP

This is a light bulb. This is also the size of a half-cup serving of grapes.

Any questions?

Uh... other than what a serving of grapes and a light bulb have in common?

Watching what you eat is hard enough; keeping an eye on how much you eat adds another dietary hurdle to morning, noon and nighttime meals.

But why do the portion sizes listed on a can of soup or box of cereal always seem so small, barely able to satisfy the slightest sniff of hunger? And how strictly must we adhere to the guidelines, determined by the Food and Drug Administration?

In addition to using portion sizes as a way to gauge what you're eating, adhering to them can also help you eat less without eating unhealthfully.


Take the light bulb and the grapes, for instance. According to the Oregon State University Extension Service, a single serving of the latter is about the same size as the former. So, what happens if wolfing down that much fruit barely sates your hunger?

Fear not, says Washington County Health System clinical nutrition manager Tim Higgins.

Instead, think of portion sizes as a guide to steer yourself while trying to fulfill daily dietary recommendations. After all, one slice of bread does not a sandwich make, although it is one serving of bread.

And in keeping the proper perspective, Higgins says serving sizes must be weighed while keeping a watchful eye on the Food Pyramid, the FDA-issued guide to how much should be eaten from each food group during the day.

He likens serving sizes to inches on a ruler, units of measurement that assist in keeping track of quantities.

Like when Higgins ate a large plate of pasta recently - three and a half cups worth, equal to seven servings.

"It's not telling me how much pasta to eat. This is what I can relate it to," he says of using portion size and the food pyramid in tandem. "It gives me some sort of perspective of where my calories are coming from. It's not telling us how much to eat, it's just saying if we eat that certain size, this is how much we are getting from it."

Say no to 'Super Size'

Among the problems with portion sizes, according to Dawn Roper, is that Americans have grown fat on larger than life meals, particularly when dining out.

While bigger seems to be better in the restaurant world, relatively tiny portions pack a powerful nutritional wallop.

"You can get all the vitamin C you need in a four-ounce glass of orange juice, but you never go to a restaurant and see that. You get an eight to 10 ounce glass," says Roper, director of food and nutrition services at City Hospital in Martinsburg, W.Va.

"A half-cup I can hold in my hand; it's like an ice cream scoop," she continues. "You put a half-cup of oatmeal in a bowl and it doesn't look like much."

Higgins recommends thinking of portion sizes in terms of more familiar items. The Oregon State University Extension Service Web site has a list of everyday objects that add perspective to the portion size debate.

A light bulb, for example, not only equals about 15 grapes but also a half-cup of cooked broccoli. A pair of dice are the equivalent of an ounce of cheese. Seven cotton balls together are the size of half a cup of fresh fruit.

Higgins suggests keeping track of not only what you eat, but how much, because it's difficult to gauge by sight just how much is sprawled on the plate.

Take his recent mound of pasta. Pressed to hazard a guess about its size, he would have thought it was three cups or two and a half rather than the three and a half it was.

"But I never would have known if I hadn't measured it," he says. "But now, the next time I have pasta I don't have to measure it again."

It's a challenge, managing portion sizes, one Roper negotiates when eating out by ordering an appetizer and a salad instead of a big meal, or splitting the meal with someone else.

She's the first to admit that if a big plate of food is set down in front of her, odds are good she'll nibble at it until she's eaten more than she should.

"Portion sizes are really hard because many people will eat a reasonable variety but they don't realize a bagel is, calorically, equal to three or four slices of bread," Roper says. "It wasn't the item itself that was the problem. It was the extra amount."

Serve up some grub

So, what constitutes a portion size? According to the Oregon State University Extension Service, household objects can provide a clue to how large servings should be.

A cassette tape = 3 ounces cooked meat, fish or poultry

A tennis ball = 1 cup potatoes, rice or pasta

A light bulb = 1/2 cup cooked broccoli

A baseball = 1 cup green salad

A pair of dice = 1 ounce of cheese

A bar of soap = 1 piece of cornbread

A postage stamp the thickness of your finger = 1 teaspoon butter or margarine

Seven cotton balls = 1/2 cup fresh fruit

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