Recently, I found myself in the unusual situation of eating out four times in one week due to a holiday and special occasions. I’m one of the few who rarely eat out – restaurants aren’t located conveniently to me and my stomach doesn’t care for restaurant food.
One night during this unusual week I found myself eating pasta, chicken, vegetables, and olive oil from a 12-inch plate. While my eyebrows raised involuntarily when the dish arrived, it didn’t hit me how much food was actually on this plate until I began to feel full – and realized that the plate was only half empty. That’s when I made a conscious decision to stop eating.
Portion Size Awareness
As a fitness and nutrition professional, I’m predictably tuned in to healthy portions. But awareness about portion size doesn’t come so naturally when you have the unconscious habit of “cleaning your plate,” like so many Americans. If you eat out frequently, you may become so accustomed to seeing those large servings of food that you unconsciously assume it’s acceptable, despite the mega calorie load.
Studies show that when served larger portions, adults and children not only eat everything on their plate, but are unaware they’re eating more  . So learning about healthy portion sizes is critical – especially when restaurants continue to push more food for the sake of higher prices.
How much more are we eating than we used to? Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that portion sizes have increased drastically between 1977 and 1996. For example, soft drinks increased in size by 52 percent, snacks by 60 percent (including chips, pretzels, and crackers), and hamburgers by 23 percent. Portions at grocery stores and in the home have grown as well .
Consequences of Bloated Portion Sizes
Weight gain is an obvious consequence of too-large portions. While there are many causes for obesity, eating out certainly contributes: Obesity has increased from 14.5 percent in 1971 to 30.9 percent in 1999 , and childhood and adolescent obesity has almost tripled to 17 percent since 1980 .
The consequence of all this extra food isn’t limited to increasing our girth; many restaurant meals include sodium and saturated fat intakes that are well above the CDC’s recommendations . These nutritionally challenged meals add up: Americans eat out for an average of one out of five meals, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Consumers are faked out at every turn, it seems. Appetizers, which appear to be smaller versions of entrees, are actually more fat and sodium-laden than full meals. And fast food isn’t the worst offender after all. Studies show that full-service restaurants tend to be higher in fat, cholesterol, and sodium than meals at fast-food restaurants, though lower in saturated fats .
Portion control is ultimately in consumers’ hands, however. It’s up to you to consciously regulate your portions at restaurants. Now that you know that most portions are too big, you must act. When you make the decision to monitor your portions, you’re making a decision to take care of your health. Excess weight, sodium, and saturated fat can contribute to diabetes, heart disease, and atherosclerosis, among other diseases.
Tips For Controlling Portion Sizes
But what really works when it comes to self-regulation? You’ve heard the tips, such as splitting a meal and checking nutritional information. These are good ideas if you are eating with someone and have access to nutritional data. Here are a few more you may not have thought of:
- Calculate your own daily portion needs at choosemyplate.gov. Enter your personal stats to find out the exact portions recommended for you and then learn how to make better choices at restaurants.
- When you get your meal, take a good look at it. It may be more than you need. For example, if your daily intake of grains should be 8 ounces per day total, eating 8 ounces of pasta at dinner is probably not a good idea.
- Space out your calories evenly throughout the day. Getting all your calories at dinner is setting yourself up for weight gain.
- When you order, ask for a smaller plate and a take-home container. When your meal arrives, divide it into two before you even start, taking half home.
- It may sound obvious, but listen to your body’s signals. Pay attention to that voice that says “I’m full.” And then stop eating.
Most Americans do eat out with some regularity – there’s no way around it. The secret is in making a conscious decision to be aware of food portions. The next step? Enjoy your meal – and your health.