Little by little, we’re having an extra couple of mouthfuls of every meal, snack and drink. The result? A weight problem we didn’t see coming! But you can fight back — here’s how to size your bites right!
We’re an obedient bunch — we eat up everything on our plates, just like our mothers told us to. Problem is, over the past two decades, the portions we’re serving (and being served) have gradually crept up. Today, health experts view this ‘portion creep’ as the key to our nation’s growing weight problems.
This supersizing isn’t just an American phenomenon; the problem is prevalent here in Australia, too — in all manner of ways. So how did this happen?
It’s fitting that the best insight into our portion creep comes from a 2011 Western Australian study into our serving sizes at dinner.
Back in the ’60s, the diameter of the average dinner plate was about 25cm (10 inches). Today, it’s more like 30cm (12 inches). It doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but according to the study, those extra centimetres can potentially see our dinner plates’ kilojoule capacity surge by roughly 60 to 100 per cent.
This change would be okay if we were plating up our food in tasty measured morsels as top restaurants do — but we’re not. And numerous studies prove that the more food we pile onto our plates, the more we eat. In fact, a recent study showed that when researchers served adults a large portion of pasta, they ate 34 per cent more than when they ate from a smaller bowl.
Why don’t we just eat less?
“The idea that larger portions provide more energy may seem intuitive, but most people tend to eat whatever they’re served,” says dietitian Alice Gibson from The University of Sydney’s Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise & Eating Disorders. “We’ve become so accustomed to larger serves that a ‘normal’ portion is often much more food than we actually need.”
Indeed, we have become so used to seeing — and eating — a generous portion that we can feel disappointed or worry we’ll go hungry when we’re served a smaller piece of the pie. This may help explain why so many of us disregard the recommended serving sizes on food packaging, or simply why we overeat. We might eat a whole pizza when a healthy serve is two medium slices, for instance, or carelessly fill our breakfast bowl with double the appropriate serving size of cereal.
To make things worse, food marketers and manufacturers are cleverly exploiting our anxiety and confusion. By offering the same product in a range of sizes, they’re able to charge only a little more for the larger packet, making it seem like good value.
For example, when McDonald’s first opened its golden arches, it offered just one size of fries. Today, the company describes that same size as ‘small’ (1070kJ, or 256cal), and its menu features two more sizes: medium (1540kJ, or 368cal) and large (1900kJ, or 455cal), which is nearly twice the amount of the original ‘small’.
We’re drowning in drinks, too. Check the nutrition-information panel of any beverage, and you’ll notice that the recommended serving size often conflicts with the bottle’s actual size. Although a modest 175ml Coke bottle contains a mere 315kJ (75cal), the smallest Coke your corner store is likely to stock is a 600ml bottle — a whopper that’s fizzing with the unwelcome amount of 1080kJ (258cal).
Bigger than bite size
The larger the portion, the more food we load onto every forkful and cram into each bite. That’s been the finding of many studies, including an analysis of US children’s eating behaviour. When researchers served kids larger portions, they ate 25 per cent more food and also took larger bites. (The average bite was 12 per cent bigger.) Tellingly, when the children served themselves, they ate 25 per cent less food.
How everyday foods stack up
Fast food isn’t the only fare that’s getting in on the act. While some pantry staples remain unchanged, other essential basics are now jostling for more shelf space. Even the humble slice of bread is bigger than ever before. This year, official Australian Dietary Guidelines changed, reducing the recommended serving size for bread from two slices to just one. (Picturing two larger slices with extra fillings gives you the idea — that’s an old-fashioned sandwich and a half!)
There’s also been a massive increase in the number of café snack products, many of which come in bigger sizes to start with. A standard cookie from a multipack still weighs about 10 to 12g, but a luxury cookie from a coffee shop can weigh in at a hefty 110g — and carry about 10 times the kilojoules.
A licence to overeat?
Beware the portion creep with so-called healthy foods as well. In a recent UK study, adults served themselves larger helpings of the cereals, drinks and coleslaws they considered healthier than these foods’ standard alternatives.
The researchers also found that even a meal’s description has a negative impact on portions: When they served both healthy and overweight adults identical lunches on three separate days, subjects ate significantly more when told the meal was low in fat and kilojoules than when it was described as high in fat and kilojoules — and consumed an extra 163kJ (39cal) as a result.
Being aware of the tricks that our minds (and some food manufacturers!) play is the first key step towards whittling our waistlines. Stop relying on what you’ve become used to seeing in shops or eating at home and in restaurants — and take charge of your own portion sizes.
Portion size: the new normal
Many of the foods we eat today and accept as ‘normal’ are actually supersize versions of what people considered normal 20 years ago. Take a look…
Original fries (now sold as ‘small’) 1070kJ/255cal
Large fries 1900kJ/455cal
= 830kJ/199cal more
Original hamburger 979kJ/234cal
Quarter Pounder 2280kJ/545cal
= 1301kJ/311cal more
Mini can (200ml) 360kJ/86cal
Bottle (600ml) 1080kJ/258cal
= 720kJ/172cal more
Some health authorities have become so concerned by portion creep that they’ve called for government legislation to regulate the portion sizes that fast-food chains and food manufacturers can sell. Just last year, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to ban fast-food outlets from selling supersize soft drinks. His efforts led to cries of “nanny state” and “food police”, and the high court ultimately overturned his law, arguing that the ban restricted free trade: the convenience store next door could lawfully sell a 1-litre bottle of the same soft drink – it just didn’t have a straw in it.
How to practise your portion control
Say no to bigger bargain sizes
We all want good value for our money when buying food, whether we’re at the supermarket or a fast-food outlet. Upsizing and opting for value meals mean you get more food for only a small increase in price, but what about the increase in your waistline? Don’t be tempted by bargain buys – bigger isn’t better. You’ll probably polish off the whole lot, rather than save some for later.
Be portion savvy
If you do buy bargain-size supermarket foods, create proper portions by dividing the contents into smaller amounts. For example, try using reusable containers or zip-lock bags to portion out 30g of nuts (about 10 to 15 nuts) from a larger bag. Keep large food packets away from the kitchen table, and store leftovers in the fridge before you sit down to eat. This saves you from going back for seconds (or even thirds… ).
Downsize your plates and bowls
The size of your plate is one of the biggest factors influencing the amount of food you eat. Eating pasta from a small bowl not only means you’ll eat less, but also seems more satisfying than eating the same amount of pasta from a large bowl. If your portion looks too small in a large bowl, you’re more likely to pile your plate high with extra pasta – and finish it, too!
Use smaller cutlery
You can still delight in indulgent desserts if you scoop them up with a smaller utensil. Spoon for spoon, you’ll consume fewer kilojoules than you would using a standard dessertspoon, without having to compromise on satisfying flavour.
Design your own plate
Buffets, barbecue lunches and casual dinners can be traps, encouraging you to eat to excess. When faced with the option to serve yourself, fill half your plate with salads and vegies. These low-kilojoule choices satisfy you and leave less room on your plate for more energy-dense foods, such as bread, meat and potato.
Have you ever wolfed down an entire plate of food without giving its flavours and textures a thought? It’s so easy to overeat when you’re not focusing on your food. Take time to savour each mouthful and avoid distractions such as watching television, chatting on the phone or even driving! Simply listening to your body’s hunger cues helps you avoid overeating and the nausea that can sometimes follow.
Fast fact: In 2011, CSIRO scientists set out to look at how accurately we can assess the size and, more importantly, the kilojoule content of fast foods. The average gap in people’s guesstimates? Nearly 4000kJ (957cal).