By Lisa R. Young

The Portion-Control Diet

The supersizing of American food has caused many of us to suffer from “portion distortion.” We’ve all become so accustomed to gargantuan servings that the terms small, medium and large make no sense anymore. We no longer have any way to judge how much we eat.

Bargain, value size and family size portions are everywhere. Fast-food employees are coached to suggest larger sizes and all the trimmings to patrons. Prepackaged supermarket foods and restaurants regularly use value as a way of pushing more food on easily-tempted customers.

The “bigger is better” motto that has taken over the food industry has affected the size of our waistlines.

Why We Overdo

An important study conducted by Pennsylvania State University researchers shows that we eat more when larger food portions are plunked down on the table. Exactly how much more do we eat? It turns out to be 30 to 50 percent! That means when we sit down and are given an amount of food that’s too large to eat in one sitting, we routinely eat 30 to 50 percent more than we would if we were handed a smaller plate. What’s even more surprising is that even though we eat more, we don’t feel any fuller.

It’s interesting that when the researchers conducted similar studies with toddlers, they found that three-year-old children stopped eating when they were full. But as soon as a child reaches five, he will continue to eat, even after being full, just like an adult. Clearly, there is a pattern of overeating when presented with more food that begins in childhood. Parents, take note.

The Calorie Explosion

Here’s the bottom line: No matter what you eat, no matter how healthful it is, no matter what the label says (dietetic, low-fat, no-carb), the bigger the size, the more calories it has. And if you eat more calories than you burn, you gain weight. It doesn’t matter if you eat low-fat, fruit-sweetened bran muffins until the cows come home; if you’re eating 10 of them every day, you’re going to gain weight.

Expanding portion sizes are the primary reason that we are facing an obesity epidemic. Calories add up quickly when the portion sizes are so large. Nutrition authorities recommend that we eat approximately 2,000 to 2,600 calories per day to stay the same weight, while older, sedentary women and young children should have a bit less, and active men and teenage boys a bit more. To put this in perspective, a breakfast bagel and a slice of pizza add up to nearly half of the calories recommended for an entire day. Once you add the cream cheese, a soda, and dinner at a Chinese restaurant, your calorie count for the day can easily top 3,000.

But who can look at food and know how many calories are in it? Nobody, not even the experts. I was asked by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C., to study how accurately dietitians are able to judge the calorie content of different restaurant meals. We showed 200 dietitians five plates of food that are typically served in restaurants. We asked the dietitians to tally up the damage, and guess what? They had no idea how many calories were in these foods. Some underestimated the calories by as much as half.

Whether you eat home-cooked meals or fast food, becoming knowledgeable about the proper portion size can help you keep calories under control.

Become a "Portion Teller"

Do you know that a deck of cards is the size of approximately 3 ounces of meat, chicken or fish (such as salmon), which is one standard serving, or is this still something you have to think about?

Once you have a certain degree of portion-size awareness, ask yourself whether you are putting your knowledge into action. Perhaps you thought that a portion the size of a deck of cards was all you were supposed to eat, and said, “Forget it, I can’t go on that diet.” Or maybe you read that a bagel is equivalent to five slices of bread, and you thought you had to cut out bagels forever. Remember, this is not the case. There is no such thing as one portion size that is right for everybody. It’s O.K. for you to pick and choose your portion, just as long as you understand how much food you can have during the day. You can include the occasional bagel, and you don’t have to have a puny 3-ounce steak all the time. It’s awareness of what you’re eating that matters.

Eat Smarter

Don’t want to feel deprived? Pump up the volume of food you eat! It’s O.K. to add volume to your diet, as long as you know which foods add bulk without adding too many calories. The key is to fill up on more water-rich foods. Increase fresh veggies, fruits and veggie-based soups. Top sandwiches with salad greens, have half a sandwich plus a nice-size salad for lunch, add baby carrots as a snack, top your cereal or yogurt with berries or sliced bananas. For dessert at a restaurant, order fresh berries and a cappuccino made with skim milk and allow yourself a few bites of your dinner companion’s dessert. Start your dinner with a tossed salad or a veggie-based soup, especially when at a restaurant. By doing so, you will be less likely to eat from the bread basket.

To buy a copy of The Portion Teller, visit these web sites:

Buy at Amazon

Buy at Barnes & Noble

Buy at Powell's