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How to choose the right portion size
In the last few decades portion size has become a major issue, with portions in restaurants increasing dramatically. Forty years ago a 32 ounce milk shake with 1,160 calories would have been unusual. There was no such thing as a Quarter Pounder (let alone a Double Quarter Pounder) and getting a mountain of nachos would be rare. These huge plates have spilled over into how people choose their food.

Portion Size
You read every day that there has been a dramatic increase in the size of portions. Everything from fast food to candy has been "supersized" in the last 30 years. The good news is that there are also a lot of great ingredients that have been produced with less fat and fewer calories. 

Portion Distortion
There's no doubt that the portion sizes of restaurant meals and packaged foods has increased in the last twenty years. There's a lot of discussion about "supersizing" and the effect that it has had on the rise in obesity in our culture. Many feel that the larger portions that we are served has an effect on what we will serve ourselves. Even twenty years ago there were signs of this and a study conducted in 1984 indicated a change in perception of portion size amongst young adults.


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Right-Size Your Recipes

As you might expect, I collect cookbooks. The first cookbook I bought for myself was the Peanuts Cook Book, but the one my mother used most (and I bet yours did too) was The Joy of Cooking. I actually have several copies of this venerable cookbook, from the two-paperback edition from 1974 to the 1946 hardback that my wife bought me for Christmas last year.

Recently a brief article in The Annals of Internal Medicine (2009;150(4):291-292) featured The Joy of Cooking. Brian Wansink, a food researcher at Cornell University, and his staff surveyed the seven editions of The Joy of Cooking and found that only 18 recipes have appeared in all seven editions (disappointingly, the letter does not list which ones they are).

The team then analyzed the serving sizes for those 18 recipes across the seven editions to see if the portion sizes (and thus the number of calories in each portion) had changed over time. Unsurprisingly, they did increase for 14 of the 18 recipes. As it happens, simple portion size was not the only cause of higher calories in a recipe - often the recipe's ingredients were changed from a lower-calorie ingredient to a higher-calorie ingredient. (This isn't unusual: my Clam Chowder recipe uses potatoes and flour to make it creamy, rather than the more modern shortcut of using heavy cream or half and half.)

Between the 1936 edition and the 2006 edition, the average number of servings in a recipe decreased by a little over 1 serving per recipe, and the average number of calories in a serving increased by over 60%.

What's especially interesting is that Dr. Wansink's team notes that the average serving sizes increased by about 33% (one-THIRD) since 1996.

What this means for you

Just because that recipe you got from mom or read in a cookbook states that it serves 4 doesn't necessarily mean that those four servings represent appropriate portion sizes. Use the portion sizes for recipes at as a guide or use the table in my column on Portion Size as a reference. You'll soon know what a real portion looks like, on paper or on your plate.

First posted: February 3, 2010