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Understanding Portion Control

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Most people consume far more calories than they realize. The culprit? A warped sense of portion size.

According to a survey conducted by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), most Americans (78 percent) still believe that the kind of food they eat is more important in managing their weight than the amount of food they eat.

People wonder why they're gaining weight. Americans are concentrating too much on cutting fat, or relying on fad diets that restrict carbohydrates, sugar, or some other nutrient.

Studies reveal that these strategies fail to address the issue of total calories consumed, as well as overall good nutrition.

Serving Sizes Essential to Good Nutrition

Understanding Portion Control Experts say that understanding the concept of standard serving sizes is essential to good nutrition. Standardized serving sizes help consumers, health professionals, and food manufacturers find a common language for the sake of communication.

Although serving sizes are "standardized," individual portion sizes will vary, because people have different caloric requirements. Portion size also depends on a person's specific weight management goals and health needs.

The American Dilemma

The problems of obesity and lack of nutrition awareness also seem to have a cultural component. Take a look at fast food restaurants. Most of these restaurants offer "super-size" or "value" meals, which often contain an entire day's worth of calories and fat.

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture reveal that Americans' total daily caloric intakes have risen by 148 calories per day since 1980. They say this amount reflects an extra 15 pounds every year. However, activity levels do need to be taken into consideration for each individual, along with facts such as just what are they eating, etc. Sometimes government tends to over-simplify when pushing their statistics on us, so just use your head and be cautious and educated.

Interestingly, the same studies show that the amount of fat in the average American diet has decreased from 40 percent of total calories to 33 percent during the same period. So even though calories from fat have decreased -- at nine calories per gram of fat versus only four for a gram of carbohydrate or protein -- we're told that Americans have more than made up for their lower fat intakes with larger portion sizes of other types of foods. Larger portion sizes equal more calories. And more calories lead to weight gain, regardless of the source of the calories -- fat, protein, or carbohydrate.

About that Fat.
Fat provides a feeling of fullness, which can help some people avoid eating to excess. By cutting fat out of their diets, people may loose this signal to stop eating. In addition, many "low-fat" and "no fat" foods can be just as high -- and in some cases higher -- in calories compared to the regular versions.

Nutritional Needs Vary
Portion sizes and overall dietary requirements depend on several factors, including activity level. For example, an inactive person may only need three-quarters to one cup of cereal in the morning, which is the usual serving size of most varieties. But someone who runs several miles a day or who engages in other forms of aerobic exercise may need two or three standard serving sizes.

How to Estimate Portion Sizes

What's a portion size? According to the American Dietetic Association, you can use the following "models" to approximate portion sizes:

  • One deck of playing cards equals one serving (three ounces) of meat, poultry, or fish (can also use the palm of a woman's hand or a computer mouse).
  • Half a baseball equals one serving (one-half cup) of fruit, vegetables, pasta, or rice (can also use a small fist).
  • Your thumb equals one serving (one ounce) of cheese.
  • A small hand holding a tennis ball equals one serving (one cup) of yogurt or chopped fresh greens.

View our Portion Image Chart (new window) for a visual reference.

The AICR recommends the following tips to control food portions:

When at Home:
Take time to "eyeball" the serving sizes of your favorite foods (using some of the models listed above). Measure out single servings onto your plates and bowls, and remember what they look like. Figure out how many servings should make up your personal portion, depending upon whether you need to lose, gain, or maintain weight.

Avoid serving food "family style." Serve up plates with appropriate portions in the kitchen, and don't go back for seconds.

Never eat out of the bag or carton.

10 Minutes Before "Seconds."
Feeling like getting a second helping of food? Hold back for 10 minutes before you make your move. It takes at least that long for your brain to get the message that your stomach is full. Many of us can eat a double portion, or one very large portion, in less than 10 minutes -- so you may be full and not even realize it. Before you act on the urge to refill your plate, sit down, drink a glass of water, and then ask yourself if you really need more food. Remember: Eat so that you're not hungry, not necessarily until you feel "stuffed."

When in Restaurants:
Ask for half or smaller portions. (Don't worry if it doesn't seem cost-effective; it's worth it.) Eyeball your appropriate portion, set the rest aside, and ask for a doggie bag right away. If you order dessert, share it or choose a healthier option like fruit or sherbet.

Source: USDA

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