'Portion distortion' research makes helpful resource

December 15, 2004|by Lynn Little

What are the correct portions or serving sizes for the foods in our diet? Many of us might be surprised by how small "standard" portions or recommended serving sizes actually are. Recommended food portions, or official "serving sizes," haven't really changed over the years, but the food portions we eat have. Many experts believe this is why so many Americans are overweight.

A portion can be thought of as the amount of a specific food we choose to eat for dinner, snack or other eating occasion. Portions can be bigger or smaller than the recommended food servings.

A serving is a unit of measure used to describe the amount of food recommended from each food group. It is the amount of food listed on the Nutrition Facts panel on packaged food or the amount of food recommended in the Food Guide Pyramid and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

For example, a regular bagel we might have purchased in a coffee shop 20 years ago was about 3 inches in diameter and had about 140 calories. Today, we are more likely to find a 6-inch bagel with about 350 calories.


Similarly, instead of getting an 8-ounce cup of coffee with milk and sugar (and 45 calories), we now are more likely to get something like a 16-ounce mocha coffee, with steamed whole milk and mocha syrup - and 350 calories.

A turkey sandwich on regular bread that we might have found at a diner 20 years ago had about 320 calories. Now, we are more likely to find a 10-inch turkey submarine sandwich with all the trimmings ... and a whopping 820 calories.

These are all examples from a Web site on "portion distortion," sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the National Institutes of Health. The site offers two interactive quizzes so users can test their knowledge not only on the extra calories in today's larger portion sizes, but also on how much extra physical activity it would take to burn off those calories. The site,, also has a concise explanation of the difference between today's portion sizes and official serving sizes, and a downloadable file with hints on what one serving looks like for a variety of foods.

It says one serving of a baked potato is about the size of your fist. One serving of fish is about the size of a checkbook. A serving of ice cream or of fruit should be about the size of a half-baseball. You can print the card and carry it around as a handy reference.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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