Expanding Portions, Expanding Waistlines

Excessive servings are at the root of much weight gain, experts say

MONDAY, Oct. 2, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- You've cut down on fat and reduced your desserts, and still you can't seem to lose -- or even maintain -- weight.

Chances are, like most Americans, you're suffering from what dietitians call "portion distortion." You're eating too much at a sitting. And eating too much of even the healthiest foods can translate quickly into a higher calorie count and disheartening readings on the scale.

"Most people have a problem with portion control," said Sandra Hannum, a dietitian and retired researcher at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Determining what makes a healthy portion isn't easy these days, with restaurants serving one person enough food for two, and food makers tempting consumers with super-size boxes of snacks and other treats at bargain prices. But if you master portion control, you've got a much better chance of making your weight goal, whether it's losing unwanted pounds or maintaining your healthy weight, experts say.

"Portion control plays a significant part in weight control," said Lola O'Rourke, a Seattle dietitian and nutrition consultant and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "If people could simply reduce their portions by a third, they would cut out a huge amount of calories."

Paying attention to portion sizes can make a weight-loss program successful, as Hannum found out in her research studies.

In one, she followed two groups of dieters, half of whom were given portion-controlled entrees and half of whom were not. One project included 60 men and 60 women; she instructed the women to consume about 1,365 calories a day, and the men about 1,700 -- typical amounts for weight-loss diets. But half the men and half the women were given pre-packaged entrees of meat and rice and then were told to add two big salads a day, fruit and two glasses of skim milk. The other study participants selected their own portions and foods after being advised about healthy choices.

Each group followed instructions so their diets were 55 percent carbohydrates, 25 percent protein and 20 percent fat.

After eight weeks, the women on the portion-control diets lost 12 pounds, but those who picked their own portions lost just 8. The men on the portion-control diets lost 16 pounds, while those not on it lost 11, said Hannum, whose studies were published in the journals Obesity and Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism.

"The diets were exactly the same in terms of protein, fats and carbohydrates," she said. "We expected to see a difference [in weight loss], but we were surprised by how big a difference it was."

The pre-packaged entrees, Hannum said, were designed to help people learn what a proper portion is. "You wouldn't want to be eating this way all the time," she said of the pre-packaged foods, noting they typically are high in salt and often skimp on vegetables.

But the pre-packaged foods, she added, are often a better choice than fast-food restaurant offerings, especially if you're short of meal preparation time.

Other ways to control portions? Awareness is one step. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, which posts information on portion education, sizes have changed dramatically in the past 20 years. A typical bagel, for instance, has grown from 3 inches in diameter to 6, with calories climbing from 140 to 350. A cheeseburger 20 years ago had about 333 calories; today, it is likely to have 590. And a serving of soda 20 years ago was typically 6.5 ounces with 85 calories, but today it's often 20 ounces with 250 calories.

To control portions while eating out, O'Rourke advises sharing an entree with your dining companion, or ordering an appetizer and a salad as your meal. You can simply ask for a smaller portion, too, she added, or request a "doggy bag" and save half the meal for later.

Another hint: Use a smaller plate to serve yourself meals, O'Rourke said.

And while some people use a kitchen scale while they prepare food, many consider it too much of a bother, O'Rourke and Hannum said. "But it is a tremendous tool for staying in control," Hannum said.

If a scale is too much work, O'Rourke suggested learning how to visualize a portion size. For instance, a cup of cereal is the size of your fist. A cup of salad greens is about the size of a baseball. A teaspoon of margarine is about as big as one dice. Two tablespoons of peanut butter are about the size of a ping pong ball. And a 3-ounce serving of meat, fish or poultry is about the size of a deck of cards, she said.

More information

To learn more about proper portion sizes, visit the University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension.

SOURCES: Lola O'Rourke, R.D., Seattle dietitian and American Dietetic Association spokeswoman; Sandra Hannum, R.D., retired researcher, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
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