What you need to know about Portion Distortion

As a Registered Dietitian, I’ve noticed a ton of confusion about what a proper serving size is. It’s a tricky area, because serving sizes in the U.S. have changed dramatically over the last 30 years. Restaurant portions, in particular, have even tripled in many cases. This, of course, distorts our idea of what meals should look like and contributes to the positive energy balance that leads to weight gain.

I’m not one for really measuring my food or counting my calories and I tend to prefer a more intuitive way of eating, but being a good intuitive eater has never been more difficult. In fact, without realizing it, we’re prompted to overeat based on a seemingly endless amount of environmental factors all leading us to consume more than is probably necessary. In fact, Brian Wansink, eating behavior scientist and author of  Mindless Eating, found that we make over 200 food decisions a day – and the scary part is that we’re usually not even aware that we’re making these decisions.  For example, something as simple as being served food in a large bowl, may lead us to consume over 30% more than we normally would without even noticing the difference in satisfaction levels – because, surprisingly, there isn’t one. The large bowl distorts our concept of portion size so much so that we don’t even notice the large difference in calorie intake.

So how to be mindful and avoid portion distortion? Without resorting to calorie counting, there are a few tips that can help you to avoid piling more on your plate than is necessary to meet your needs.

  1. First, use a smaller plate–as we saw with the large bowl experiment, large serveware encourages higher intakes and higher intakes mean more calories. If you finish your plate and are still hungry, by all means go and grab a second helping, but try and give yourself some time to evaluate your satisfaction level. This simple step of mindfulness can be difficult if you start out with a big plate of food.
  2. Try to make non-starchy veggies the star of your plate with everything else playing a lesser (although still important!) supporting role. At restaurants, foods like meat, pastas, rice and other grain-based foods are often much larger servings compared with vegetables.
  3. When out at a restaurant that serves large portions, consider splitting an entree with a friend and ordering extra veggies.
  4. Don’t keep extra servings on the table. If possible, serve yourself in the kitchen. If extra food is in view, you’re likely to eat more. By keeping extra food out of sight, it gives you an extra moment to mindfully decide whether or not you’d like more–again, there is nothing wrong with a appreciating a second helping, but give yourself the option to make that decision.
  5. Rather than eating snacks out of packages, place your serving in a small bowl to enjoy.

If you have any extra tips, we’d love to hear them!

Happy eating,