Monday, 4 February 2013

Portion Distortion (The Fat Conspiracy)

One good thing about being the (reluctant) group leader at TOPS is that I can discuss things that I am struggling with myself and hopefully help myself and, by association, the others in the group get over a hurdle once in a while.  This week, in an effort to stick with my “Back to Basics” theme to start off the year, I decided we needed to revisit the topic of portion control in general.  Not the most stimulating topic of discussion but one that we need to constantly drill into our heads.  My research turned up a few things I found quite fascinating.

Everyone starts off weighing and measuring everything and then over time we start to “eyeball” it.  Yeah, that never works out well.  Half a cup soon becomes half a plate and that’s never good.  It is tough enough trying to shed pounds without sabotaging yourself by thinking you are making good choices when you are not.  WebMD is a great site for all kinds or resources that I often use when planning meetings.  At there is an excellent Portion Control Guide.

Basically it’s a no brainer; half your plate should be vegetables, a quarter of your plate protein and the other quarter starch.  Not too difficult, right?  That’s what I thought too! 

And that’s where some of my research started to get really interesting in terms of common practices these days.
Did you know that in the early 1990s, the standard size of a dinner plate increased by 2 inches, from 10 inches in diameter to 12 inches?

Neither did I.

Do you have any idea how much food I can fit on an extra two inches of plate?

Trying to lose weight is never easy.  It’s never just about the willpower; there are many factors to take into consideration such as age, gender, physical activity, stress, emotions and overall health.  All of those have validity in the success or failure of any weight loss program.  But the bottom line is all about the math.  Calories in have to be less than calories out!  To quote Jillian Michaels, “A calorie is a calorie is a calorie”.  One pound equals 3500 calories.  If you eat more than 3500 calories over your recommended intake, whether it is in the course of a day or a week, you gain a pound.  It doesn’t matter if you eat 3500 calories worth of Oreos or 3500 calories worth of vegetables.

Now lets go back to the issue of bigger plates.  Our perception of the correct amount of food on a larger plate is that we are being deprived.  Whether consciously or unconsciously, one is less likely to stick to a healthy eating plan when feeling deprived.  Despite the fact that they contain the same quantity of food, if you look at the picture on the left, which plate would you rather be served at dinner?

Larger “standard” plate sizes are not the only culprit in the portion distortion conspiracy.  Over the past few decades, portion sizes of all types of foods have grown.  Everything from the size of a muffin to the size of sandwiches has been “super sized”.  We have been “advertised” into a distorted view of what a typical meal is supposed to look like.

Twenty years ago a person would sit down at a coffee counter and order a coffee.  It was served in a standard 6 or 8 ounce cup, the size of typical small coffee at the drive through of your favorite coffee shop.  However, these days we feel we don’t get our money’s worth unless the cup is at least twelve ounces.  I believe the new Tim Horton’s XL coffee is somewhere around 32 ounces.  If you turn that coffee shop coffee into mocha, your morning coffee has just as many calories as your breakfast.

Not too long ago a read an excellent book called “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard” by Chip and Dan Heath.  In one section of this book they described a random experiment carried out a movie theater in which patrons going in to see a movie were given free popcorn.  I am paraphrasing here but the results are the important point.  Some were given a medium (120g) others a large (240g) bag of popcorn, some fresh and some disgustingly stale.  After the movie the patrons were asked to return the bags and comment on the popcorn.  Divided into two groups based on whether they liked the taste of the popcorn, the results were that people with the large size ate more than those with the medium size, regardless of how participants rated the taste of the popcorn

The average size of a bag of popcorn twenty years ago was 5 cups, approximately 270 calories.  Today one of the options at the movie theatres is a Tub of Popcorn clocking in at about 630 calories. We do not have to consume those extra 360 calories, but that is easier said than done.  As the Heath brother’s study shows us, when given food in larger containers, people will consume it.

I would just like to add that “Switch” is not a book about weight loss or dieting, but many of the strategies they use for marketing can definitely be applied to all types of changes we would like to make.

 Increased portion sizes are not the only contributor to the current obesity epidemic but large quantities of inexpensive food have distorted the perception of what a typical meal is supposed to look like.  The following portion comparisons are adapted from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s Portion Distortion Quiz.  They give an excellent visual representation of what sizes used to be compared to what they are today.
Thanks to super-sized portions in restaurants, supermarkets and convenience stores, we've lost touch with what constitutes an appropriate portion size.   Eating super-sized portions of foods high in fat, sugar and calories can lead to weight gain. It's well established that when served a larger portion of food, people eat more than when given a smaller amount. We tend to think that the portion served, regardless of size, is the appropriate amount to eat.

A study comparing eating habits today with twenty years ago found that participants poured themselves about 20 percent more cornflakes and 30 percent more milk for their morning meal.

According to a 2007 report published in the Journal of Public Health Policy, portion sizes offered by fast food chains are two to five times larger than when first introduced.  When McDonalds first started in 1955, its only hamburger weighted around 1.6 ounces, now; the largest hamburger patty weighs 8 ounces, an increase of 500 percent.  And while a Big Mac used to be considered BIG, it’s on the smaller side of many burger options.  At Burger King, you can get the Triple Whopper; at Ruby Tuesday’s there’s the Colossal Burger, and Carl’s Junior has the Western Bacon Six Dollar Burger.

As seen in the illustration above, even the average size of soda has nearly tripled.

In the 1970’s around 47 percent of the North American population were overweight or obese.  Now 66 per cent of the population falls into the overweight/obese category.  If you take out the overweight column and look at only those considered obese the percentage has doubled from 15 to 30 percent.  This problem has become so severe that the Centre for Disease Control is looking at it as an epidemic. 

In our ongoing battle to make healthy lifestyle choices it's important to distinguish between portion size and serving size.

A "portion size" is just the amount of food someone eats at a sitting.

A "serving size" is a unit of measure that is based on nutrition needs.

Canada’s Food Guide is an excellent source for determining “serving size” based on your caloric intake needs for a day.
Here are some ways to help visualize what a Canada's Food Guide serving size looks like:
3 ounces meat, fish, chicken = 1 deck of cards
4 ounces tofu = baseball
2 tablespoons peanut butter = 1 golf ball
1.5 ounces cheese = 3 dominoes
1/2 cup pasta or rice = 1/2 baseball or a small fist
1 pancake or waffle = a 4-inch CD
1 small muffin = a large egg
1/2 cup cooked vegetables = baseball or a small fist
1 cup salad greens = 1 baseball
1 small baked potato = size of your computer mouse
1 medium sized fruit = 1 baseball
1 teaspoon butter, margarine = tip of your thumb

If that visualization is still too difficult to keep in mind when faced with a plate of food you know is too much.  Remember you have the handiest portion control tool with you at all times.

Many people have difficulty assessing their portion size of starchy foods like bagels, rice and pasta and tend to overeat them. Plus, we tend to cook more than we need at meals so it's tempting to go back for seconds.

There are a few tricks that can aid in keeping portion control in check:
I have a friend who brings Tupperware when she goes out for a meal, and as soon as her food is served she puts half of it in her container to take home for the next day’s lunch or dinner.

Use smaller serving dishes. In a study from Cornell University, people served themselves nearly 60 percent more ice cream - and were unaware they did so - when given a large spoon and big bowl compared to a smaller bowl and spoon. Instead of filling a dinner plate, serve your meal on a luncheon-sized plate (7 to 9 inches in diameter). Use small glasses for milk, juice and other caloric beverages and large glasses for water.

Plate your snacks. Don't snack directly from a large container. To see how much you're eating, measure or count out one serving and put it on a plate. Read the Nutrition Facts box to learn how many crackers, potato chips, cookies, and so on equal one serving.

Go for the real thing. Avoid buying low-fat or light versions of your favourite treats. Research has shown that people eat, on average, 28 to 50 per cent more calories when they eat low-fat snacks than regular ones. Low fat doesn't always mean fewer calories. Fat is often replaced with sugar, reducing calories somewhat but not as much you might think. Low-fat foods are also often perceived as "guilt free", causing people to overindulge. Satisfy your craving with the food you love, just in a small portion.

Avoid temptation. Foods that are visible and within reach encourage overeating. Keep unhealthy snacks hidden at the back of the cupboard or refrigerator. If possible, don't bring them into the house until you need to serve them.
Credit where credit is due:  While searching for images to use during my TOPS meeting (and thereby for this blog) most of them came from three sources;,, and Leslie Beck, Nutritionist.

Using a direct quote from Stephanie Zahlman,  “When you stop off at McDonald’s … get the kids meal!  It’s a serving! Or if you must get a Big Mac (and I say this, because sometimes I MUST), eat half … OMG!  Waste Food?  Its better to throw it away than put all of that extra food into your body.  Better in the trash than on your ass!

It’s unlikely that we’ll see a scaling down of food to appropriate serving sizes anytime soon, so perhaps we should all become familiar with another image:”

TOPS weigh report:
I didn't put the weigh in results in last week because I posted my blog before the weight in.  Last week I was down 1.5 pounds.  Unfortunately, I had a not great week this week, not managing to get any work outs done and it showed on the scale.  I was up .5 pound.  So that's one pound lost in two weeks.  Not good at all and I'm coming into birthday time in our household.  I'm really going to have to do some planning and definitely get some work outs in.

No comments:

Post a Comment