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Avoiding portion distortion

By Matt O'Neill, MSc(Nut&Diet), APD

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Have you been unwittingly supersized recently? You may not realise you are suffering from “portion distortion”. This term, first coined by US Professor Brian Wansink is used to describe the upward trend in the size of snacks and meals people are commonly consuming.

Portion sizes are important because larger portions mean more kilojoules consumed. It's not just what you eat, but how much. Without knowing serving sizes, it's hard to judge the amount food you should be eating to create a healthy diet. This article explains the problem and provides advice you can use with your clients.



Supersizing your clients

The upward creep in portion sizes is now being blamed for increasing waistlines in the US, especially in light of evidence published in the January issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Analysis of large-scale dietary surveys showed portion sizes for common convenience foods increased between 1977 and 1996 regardless of whether people ate in or out.

At fast food outlets, the portions of soft drinks increased by 62 percent, salty snacks by almost 58 percent, French fries by 57 percent and desserts by 33 percent. The size of fast food burgers jumped by only 18 percent, from 183 to 216 grams. In comparison, the homemade version beefed up to 252 grams from 171 grams - an increase of almost 50 percent.

The US researchers point out that the supersizing of convenience foods is significant, given it only takes an equivalent 82 kJ of unexpended energy each day to gain a kilogram of fat in a year.

Why portion distortion?

Marketing tactics of the fast food industry rather than consumer demand triggered the upsizing of our nations food supply. Competition between outlets with similar quality food means that the only way to win customers was to offer more food for fewer dollars.

Bill Shrapnel, an Australian dietitian and food industry consultant says, “An upgrade to a much larger serve size may be offered, for only a little more money. Having secured the customer the tactic is to squeeze a few extra cents out of the sale. Good for business; bad for the waistline.”

It can also be argued that advertising of `fat-free' foods is further distorting healthy eating messages by promoting over-consumption of snacks that are often high in sugar and therefore still relatively high in energy. When a client claims, “I'm eating low-fat, but I'm still gaining weight” it could be because their portion sizes have also expanded, along with their waistline.

Advertising claims of the type, “99% Fat-free - 100% Guilt-free” are confusing, if not potentially misleading consumers. And the current popular trend of carbohydrate restriction would not have developed to `carbophobic' proportions if people were able to accurately judge what they needed to eat. On average, we simply need to eat less rather than live a low-carb lifestyle.

What is a serving?

To gain some perspective its necessary to know what a serving actually is. A serving is a standard sizing for different foods, whereas a `portion' is the actual amount of food you eat. Food selection guides such as the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating and the CSIRO's 1,2,3,4,5+ Plan recommend the number of servings that should be consumed from each food group for a healthy diet. They show how to meet minimum nutrient requirements and balance in terms of fat, carbohydrate and protein.

Larger portion sizes of nutritious foods, such as raw fruits and vegetables make it easier to get the vitamins and minerals you need, whereas jumbo sizes of less nutritious foods rich in fat and sugar make weight management more difficult.

Do your serves stack up?

As a baseline, the following minimum servings and serving sizes are generally recommended for adults. Needs vary for age, gender and activity level. Please consult a dietitian to determine your individual requirements.

Meat or alternatives - 1 serve
80-100 grams cooked lean beef
2/3 cup cooked beans or lentils
2 eggs

Dairy - 2-3 serves
1 cup (250ml) milk
2 slices (40g) cheese
1 tub (200g) yoghurt

Fruit and juices - 3 serves
1 medium apple, orange, banana, etc (150g)
2 small apricots, plums, etc (150g)
½ cup (125mL) fruit juice

Vegetables - 4 serves
1 medium potato (150g)
½ cup (75g) cooked vegetables
1 cup salad vegetables

Breads and cereals - 5 serves
1 slice (30g) bread
½ cup of cooked pasta or rice
1 bowl (30g) breakfast cereal

Tips to avoid portion distortion

1. Resist being upsized or purchasing `value meals' at fast food outlets.

2. Check out the children's menu first. Portion sizes here may be more appropriate.

3. Ask for the smallest portion on offer. This may be a medium size, as it's become harder to find small sizes.

4. Order entrée sizes at restaurants and split desserts with a friend.

5. Ask for a doggie bag when you order your meal, so you are prepared to take some home.

6. Share your sandwich or roll from takeaway bars. These are often built for two.

7. Read nutrition information panels and consider the number of servings in a package. A serving is not necessarily the whole container.

8. Buy meals-for-one rather than `family value' packs.

9. Conduct a portion patrol in your kitchen to identify oversized servings.

10. Downsize dinner plates at home. Serve meals on entrée or salad plates.

11. Eat more slowly and savour food. It takes 10 to 20 minutes for your brain to get signals from your stomach that you are full.

12. Put left-overs in the fridge before you sit down to eat.

13. Store foods in individual portion sizes, rather than bulk containers.


Learning about and controlling portion sizes is an important skill for clients who want to eat a nutritious diet and effectively manage their waistlines. Fitness professionals can also encourage clients to eat for quality, not quantity and enjoy more conversation during meals.


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