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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.
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.
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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"Clean your plate; there are children starving in Africa [or China, or Ethiopia]." I'm sure you heard it too. We're well-programmed to eat everything we put on our plate. When studying how much people eat at meals, the vast majority of research focuses on measuring how much people eat when they are able to eat as much as they want, until they are full. The assumption is that how much people eat at any one meal is dependent on mental and physical feelings of fullness, both of which occur while one is actually eating. In those types of situations we've seen that how much people eat can be affected by distractions from music to friends.
Researchers in England took another approach towards researching how much people eat at meal times. Their theory was that how much people eat at a meal is largely determined before someone sits down to eat (Appetite 2011;56(2):284-289).
To test their theory, they recruited 764 members of the staff and students at the University of Bristol to respond to an online survey of their eating habits. The participants were 78% women, almost 20% were dieting to lose weight, and the group averaged ~25 years of age, with a Body Mass Index of 22.8 (in the normal range).
The survey questions the participants responded to were based on their recollections of their most recent meal (not including snacks). They were asked, among other questions, what type of meal it was (breakfast, lunch, dinner), where it was eaten (at home or at a restaurant), and if they themselves selected the portion size. They were then asked if they had eaten everything on their plate, and if they did, could they have eaten more? Had they planned to eat everything on their plate? Did they take another helping? If they did not eat everything on their plate, why?
The researchers found that 91% of the respondents cleaned their plates, regardless of whether that meal was breakfast, lunch or dinner. 92% of those people who cleaned their plates stated that they had planned to clean their plates at the start of the meal. Indeed, 28% of those people said that they were full before they ate everything on their plate, but they ate it anyway. Only 7% of the participants did not eat everything on their plate even though they had planned to.
The take-home message here is clear: plan to eat everything on your plate. Take the right portion size, put it on your plate, eat it and stop. In a restaurant, put the amount you're not going to eat in a take-home box before you start eating.
First posted: March 30, 2011