Use Portion Control to Get Leaner

It’s no surprise North Americans are getting more overweight and obese. Some will point to sugar as the culprit. Others cite inactivity as the problem. While both of these could play roles in our expanding waist lines there’s no denying we’re eating larger portions than in previous years.

So why does this happen? Why are we eating larger portions? A review of the research identifies two reasons (1).

The first is that we seek value for food. We look get more in return for our financial investment. Think of many times people opt to super-size a combo meal at a fast food restaurant. It’s not that the portion of fries and drink that normally accompanies a meal is insufficient. It’s more of a case that for a nominal increase in price you get substantially more food. You’d be stupid not to, right?

There’s no denying portion sizes have increased over the years.

The other reason that we are eating larger portions is due to portion distortion. We have been exposed to such large portions of food that we have been conditioned to recognize these as normal. In the marketplace we are offered portions that are 3-4 times what a standard portion should be. But the public perception is that is these amplified portions are the standard. No one bats an eye when we are over served. If we were to go the other way and were served a standard portion, one at 1/3 to 1/4 normal market offerings, we’d cry foul and the restaurateur would hear about it.

Another study looked at how the size and freshness affected how much popcorn we eat (2).

What they found when given a small versus a large tub of stale popcorn, subjects ate 34% more when they had a large tub. Even though the popcorn was stale at 14 weeks old, people ate about a third more just because they were given a larger bucket.

I find this interesting and disappointing at the same time. If you asked most people I believe they’d say they are able to resist treats that don’t taste good. I mean 14 day old popcorn has to taste pretty awful. But when subjects are given bigger tubs of stale popcorn their discerning palates go out the window and they eat 34% more.

Given enough of it we’ll eat 34% more food whether it be stale popcorn or gross candy.

So you might be thinking, that’s fine, I never ear stale popcorn anyways. Well guess what wiseguy? When offered fresh popcorn in small or large buckets subjects at 45% more when more was available.

The take home message is that no one counts calories. And we are over-served when we eat out. ‘Normal’ portions can 3-4 times what a standard portion should be. And even if a treat isn’t tasty be careful as we still overeat when more of it is served.

Going forward use smaller plates when eating meals. Limit treats to special occasions. And use bigger plates to encourage eating more of the foods we may not get enough of i.e. fruits and vegetables. When you head out to eat consider ordering an appetizer with a salad or maybe an entree to share.


  1. Steenhuis, I.H., Vermeer, W.M. Portion size: review and framework for interventions. 2009. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 6( 58)
  2. Wansink B and Kim J. Bad popcorn in big buckets: portion size can influence intake as much as taste. 2005. J Nutr Educ Behav, 37(5) 242-5.

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