Have you bought popcorn at a movie theater lately? It comes in a variety of sizes: Small (which means large), medium (super humongous), and large (bathtub). If all that butter and salt makes you thirsty, you can order a 64-ounce soda -- that's nearly a six-pack of soft drinks in one convenient container. Enjoy! (And try to get an aisle seat.)
These days, you don't have to go to the theater to sample king-sized foods. From restaurants to convenience stores to dining rooms, portions are growing faster than you can say, "Super-size it." Entrees and side dishes that were the norm 20 years ago would seem criminally skimpy today. Remember when muffins were a light morning treat? If you pick up a muffin at a coffee shop today, be sure to lift with your legs, not your back.
The expansion of the American meal has gone hand in hand with the expansion of the American belly. In fact, oversized portions are a major culprit in the ongoing obesity epidemic, says Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. Nestle sums up the situation in three words: "Too many calories." In the last 35 years, the average American diet has increased by 500 calories per day, theoretically enough to add an extra 31 pounds of fat to each person every year. Nestle's advice is equally simple: If you're watching your weight, you need to watch the size of your meals.
More for less
It's easy to go overboard at home. But for truly obscene portions, you have to leave it to the professionals. "Check out any of the chain restaurants, and you'll see huge platters of food coming out of the kitchen," says Melanie Polk, registered dietitian and director of nutrition education for the American Institute of Cancer Research. "Even the salads are piled high with fried Chinese noodles and other things that can sabotage a diet."
Want a hearty breakfast? How about Denny's Grand Slam: Two eggs, two pancakes, two slices of bacon, two sausage links, and hash browns. That's 1072 calories and 62 grams of fat to start the day. For lunch, you can order a Bacon Clubhouse Burger at McDonald's, complete with a whopping 720 calories and 40 grams of fat. If that's not enough, you can always get a large order of fries (510 calories and 24 grams of fat). For dinner, try an all-you-can eat buffet. With a little perseverance, you can eat several entrees for one low price.
More for your money: That's exactly the kind of thinking that has sent restaurant portions out of control. "It's called value marketing," Polk says. As the food industry grew more and more competitive, restaurants began to lure customers with bigger and bigger meals. "They are always offering more for less. It would please me if they started offering less for less."
Since restaurants aren't likely to start showing restraint, it's up to individuals to keep meals sizes in check. Polk suggests ordering a salad and an appetizer instead of an entree. If you want to sample a dessert, consider sharing it with someone else. Most of all, don't be afraid to ask for a take-home container, even if you've barely made a dent in your meal. "Too many people feel like they have to eat everything that's put in front of them," she says.
The home front
Moderation is just as important at home. By slowly reducing the size of your meals, you can trim your waistline without disrupting your life. "This isn't like a crash diet that you can never stick to," Polk says. "It's a lasting improvement in your eating habits."
As a first step, you should do a reality check on what really constitutes a serving. This is the standard unit of measurement used by nutrition experts, and there's a good chance your definition differs from theirs. For instance, a "standard" serving of meat or poultry is 3 ounces, about the size of a deck of cards. There's no law against eating two decks worth of steak or chicken, but you should know what you're getting: Double the fat and calories of a standard serving.
Here's a rundown of standard serving sizes of various foods, adapted from the American Institute for Cancer Research:
Chopped vegetables: 1/2 cup (a rounded handful)
Raw leafy vegetables: 1 cup (the size of an adult fist)
Fresh fruit: one medium fruit (or 1/2 cup chopped)
Dried fruit: 1/4 cup (the size of a golfball)
Pasta or rice (cooked): 1/2 cup (a rounded handful)
Nuts: 1/3 cup (a level handful)
Cheese: 1.5 ounces (a cube slightly larger than 4 dice)
You may notice that most "standard" servings seem small compared with real-world portions. In some cases, this is a positive thing. For instance, the advice that you should eat four to five cups of fruits and vegetables each day seems less daunting when you know a single cup of green beans counts as two servings.
Before you can start controlling your meal sizes, you may have to learn to control your appetite. Polk recommends eating several small meals and healthy snacks throughout the day. If you only eat when you're ravenously hungry, you're practically guaranteed to pack away more calories than you really need. "Many people find that they lose weight when they start eating throughout the day," she says. You're also less likely to feel shortchanged if you drink plenty of water during the day and chew all of your food slowly.
Of course, the size of your meals is just one part of the weight-loss formula. If you replace fatty, calorie-dense foods with fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, you can lose weight without reducing your portions. With a little planning, you may even be able to eat MORE than you're accustomed to and still lose weight. And if you add exercise to your daily routine, you'll be that much further ahead.
Let the theaters, restaurants, and fast-food joints keep super-sizing their foods. As long as you watch what you eat, they won't get the chance to super-size your body.
Interview with Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University.
Interview with Melanie Polk, registered dietitian and director of nutrition education for the American Institute of Cancer Research.
Young, Lisa R., PhD, RD and Nestle, Marion, PhD, MPH, The Contribution of Expanding Portion Sizes to the US Obesity Epidemic, American Journal of Public Health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1447051/
McDonald's Nutrition Facts for Popular Menu Items. 2014. http://nutrition.mcdonalds.com/usnutritionexchange/nutritionfacts.pdf
Nestle M and MF Jacobson. Halting the obesity epidemic: A public health policy approach. Public Health Reports 115: 12-24.
The American Institute for Cancer Research. The New American Plate: A timely approach to eating for healthy life and healthy weight.
U. S. Department of Agriculture. Nutrient Availability. http://www.ers.usda.gov/Data/FoodConsumption/NutrientAvailIndex.htm