There’s no denying the portion sizes in the U.S. have doubled in the last 20 years. If you ate the same foods today you would consume on average 1,500 calories more compared to the exact same foods a few decades ago. From the popular “super-size” meals to jumbo tubs of popcorn, and Big Gulps, the growing portion sizes in the U.S. are directly contributing to the current obesity epidemic.

The problem is that we are getting accustomed to these larger portions from restaurants and start pilling up our plates even at home. Cookbooks have even increased portion sizes over the past 70 years encouraging larger meals at home. Now it takes more food to satisfy you on a daily basis, which means extra calories and weight gain. So what can we do about this?

You could say, just don’t eat it all, but our eyes are bigger than our stomachs. So if Red Robbin continues to offer bottomless fries, we’re gonna order more fries.

The human brain wants more food. Built into our DNA is an innate sense of survival of which food is a major part and therefore, our brains will continue to signal food cravings. Regardless of any kind of health concerns, the brain just tells you to eat more food, which is why we have to consciously limit our portion sizes.

Larger portions, espeically of high calorie foods, will ultimately lead to weight gain.

Serving Size & Portion Size

A serving size is not the same thing as portion size, nor is a serving size the recommended amount to eat. Serving size, outlined on a nutrition label, is not based on the recommended intake of that specific food, but rather on the average amount consumed. Soda changed its serving size from 8oz. to 12oz, not because it’s “safe” to consume more or even recommended, but on average, most people consume 12oz of soda in one serving. “Consumption norms” determine the appropriate amount to eat rather than what’s best for your weight and overall health. The serving size is not a recommended intake. Portion size is the recommended intake, but even this must be tailored as it’s not the same for everyone.

“By law, serving sizes must be based on the amount of food people typically consume, rather than how much they should consume. Serving sizes have been updated to reflect the amount people typically eat and drink today” (FDA, 2022).

Serving size and portion size directs our eating habits rather than our natural feelings of hunger and satiety. Today, we engage in more mindless eating than ever. Sedentary snacking, as I like to call it, also reinforces the habit of snacking while doing an activity, such as watching TV. Unaware of how much you’re actually eating.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stated that the use of recommended serving sizes is not mandatory in nutrition labelling because of the lack of nutritionally adequate servings for some processed foods, such as sweets and pastries” (Kliemann et al., 2018).

Using your hands to ballpark your portion sizes is a great idea! This is an easy way to see if you’re on target for balancing your meals and the ratio of macros. The problem with this measurement tool is that isn’t specific to types of carbs and fats. Complex carbs, whole foods with fiber like brown rice, quinoa, and potatoes (not fried) , are appropriate for the size of your palm. However, measuring simple carbs, like Oreos can really stack up in the palm of your hand. Therefore, it’s best to use this as a guide, but focus on the types of proteins, fats, and carbs that make it to your plate.

The other issue with using a standard unit for measuring portions is that portions are not a one size fits all. Portion sizes must be tailored to your individual health goals. For example, someone trying to lose weight is going to want to stock up on the veggies and protein, but scale back on some of the carbohydrates. Unless that same person is active in weight training and trying to build muscle. In this case, balancing complex carbs will be necessary for energy and weight loss. Not all carbs are bad, in fact, complex carbs can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 Diabetes, and obesity. So avoiding carbs is not a good idea, nor is it sustainable, so any diet that’s recommending carb-cutting like Keto is a pass in my book.

Determining YOUR Portion Sizes

First, what are your health goals? Are you trying to lose, maintain, or gain weight? Are you trying to build muscle mass and lose fat? Are you working out or solely focused on nutrition?

All these answers determine what your portions should look like. We can’t all expect to eat the same foods and portion sizes and have it work for everyone. Your weight is influenced by more than just your diet, like genetics, race, gender stress level, and sleep routine all affect your weight. Therefore, portion size is a great way to tailor your calorie intake, but it’s really about finding the balance of keeping yourself full while also reducing your cravings.

Portion sizes also vary between meals and snacks. You will likely not have the same portions for breakfast as you will for lunch and dinner. Breakfast generally will have more carbs in the form of whole grains like oatmeal or toast as well as a piece of fruit for vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber. Lunch and dinner are when we want to load up on veggies for more vitamins, fiber, and other nutrients.

Using a Nutrition Calculator can determine your needs based on your current health status and specific goals.

Also remember, it’s not always the food that’s causing weight problems. Often it’s the drinks. Soda, diet and regular, both contribute to weight gain. So even if you’re diet is on point, but you’re washing it down with a sweet tea, it’s not helping your weight loss goals.

If you’re the chef in your family, you’re likely cooking and serving the food. This mistake is made often when couples will put equal amounts of food on everyone’s plate, yet everyone has different caloric needs and health goals. Therefore, you and your partner shouldn’t be eating the same amounts of food if you have different health goals.

For more accurate portions try using divided plates and a food scale

Eating at Restaurants

For some of my best tips and tricks for eating healthy outside of your home Check out How to Eat Healthy at Resturaunts.

Disclaimer: The information in this article is designed for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. This information should not be used to diagnose or treat any health conditions without consulting your healthcare provider. Information used is based on experience and opinion, not 100% evidence. Always consult with a health care practitioner before relying on any information in this article or on this website. Some links in this article may contain affiliate links.