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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.

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.

How to choose the right portion size
In the last few decades portion size has become a major health issue, with serving size 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 serve themselves.


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What's your personal portion size?

a place setting of fork, knife, spoon, and dinner plate on a placemat

I've spoken and written extensively about portion size and the importance of portion control in weight management. This is partly in response to what is often termed "the super-sizing of America," but it's not just restaurants where portion sizes have blown up in the last several decades. Brian Wansink and his team discovered that the portion sizes in such beloved cookbooks as The Joy of Cooking have also increased. That means that for a lot of people, they have no idea what an actual portion size should be - because they've probably never seen one.

A team of researchers in the United Kingdom recently published a study that sought to get an idea of what people thought of as a "normal" portion size (Int J Obesity 2015;39:1319-1324). In doing this, they noted that people often have an idea of what is normal for them and often see what is normal for others differently. The authors theorized that those who are what we consider to be clinically normal body weight would have smaller personal and social definitions of what is a "normal" portion size than those who are considered to be clinically obese.

To investigate this idea, they recruited 30 men and women of clinically normal weight (Body Mass Index between 20 and 25) as well as 30 men and women who were clinically obese (Body Mass Index between 30-35). On two separate occasions a week apart, each participant came to the lab and viewed 17 portion sizes of a dozen common foods on a computer screen. On one occasion, for each image the participant was asked, "At a typical eating occasion when you would eat this food, would YOU normally have....?" and they were prompted to respond with either "Less" or "More" (than the amount shown). Each image was of the same size on the computer screen and showed different amounts of the food on a standard size dinner plate or bowl complete with place setting and drinking glass for size comparison.

The second visit was the same as the first, except that the participant was asked, "At a typical eating occasion when this food would be eaten, most OTHER people would normally have...?" and again they were prompted to respond with either "Less" or "More" than the amount shown.

At the beginning of both sessions the subjects responded to questionnaires that measured their hunger and desire to eat. At the end of the second session they were asked how much they liked each specific food.

The authors correlated each participants' portion size indicators, both for themselves and for others, with their Body Mass Index, gender, hunger level at the time of testing, and age. They found that, as they had expected, those who were obese tended to have larger personal normal amounts than those who were of normal weight, and their personal norms were also larger than what they believed others would normally eat. Similarly, men's personal portion sizes tended to be larger than those of women, regardless of the participant's weight.

What was especially striking about their results is that the personal normal sizes for all of the participants was larger than what is considered a "normal" serving size by UK standards.

What this means for you

While that last suggests that those who define serving sizes may need to recalibrate according to what people feel is a "real" portion size (2 servings of soup in a single can when nobody is going to eat only half a can?), this does point up the need to assess your personal portion sizes if you are working on your weight. Here's a reference guide to choosing the right portion size.

First posted: November 18, 2015