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It's All About Portion Size

It's All About Portion Size


Most Americans (nearly 80% according to one survey) think of weight control as a matter of avoiding certain foods and emphasizing others because of health messages they've heard in the media, such as 'eat low-fat foods.' While many of us are listening to the messages and eating lower-fat foods, we seem to be getting fatter! Have you noticed how sizes have changed in the past few decades? Those of you who are old enough to say 'Yes!' to that question will remember when a typical radio was huge. Now you might be carrying a music player smaller than a couple of golf pencils. But some things were smaller than they are now, especially in the food category. Remember that little bagel you could chew on for a long time? Now it is nearly three times that size and filled with sandwich makings! 'Tall' is the new small, and sometimes we feel cheated if a plate we are served has empty spaces on it' no matter how attractive it looks overall. The equation for weight maintenance is simple: Energy in equals energy out. To keep our weight in balance we have to expend as many calories through exercise and other activities as we consume. We seem to have more problems with this simple truth than we should. Let's revisit the concept of portions to figure out the best way to balance intake and output. We like eating to be fun, not a chore, so the idea of measuring things is not enticing. If you can't figure out what is going on with your waistline (while you sip your grande mocha piled high with whipped cream), it is time to explore your understanding of real portion sizes for the food you eat. Suffice it to say we don't apply the same standards to what constitutes an appropriate meal that we (or our parents) did just 10 to 20 years ago, when supersizing somehow became the norm. You can learn what a portion size really is by taking measures of just a few items you often eat and then keeping them in mind when you face your plate. [Click the 'Portion Distortion Quizzes' link above for a list for some general guidelines on portion sizes.] Now it is time to test the accuracy of your perception of portion sizes. During your next meal at home, take a couple of minutes to measure the items before you put them on your plate. Once you know what half a cup of peas looks like when it spreads out on the plate, you won't have to measure them again. See how half a cup of rice compares in appearance to a full cup so that you can figure out how much you are really consuming when you go out to eat. For protein foods, mentally compare the size of a chicken breast or meat fillet to a deck of cards'that should be roughly three ounces. A typical computer mouse might represent a serving size of about a half cup. The tip of your thumb could be about a teaspoon's worth. Getting used to reality-size portions is an important key to weight loss, weight maintenance, and even weight gain. To learn more and test your portion size knowledge, check out the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute's 'Portion Distortion' quizzes by clicking through at You'll have fun and learn a lot about balance. Fields-Gardner is the director of services for the HIV nutrition company Cutting Edge and is a member of the International AIDS Society and the American Dietetic Association's Dietetic Practice Group on HIV and AIDS. E-mail her at

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