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America’s Portion Distortion

By Coeli Carr for MSN Health & Fitness

When you pile food on your plate, do you have any idea how many calories you’ve signed up for? Do you calculate the recommended serving size by checking out the label or back-of-box nutrient information? Or do you tend to guess?

The recommended serving sizes of certain mainstays on the family menu are often much smaller than you think, so it’s easy to become oblivious to the amount of food you and your loved ones are eating. Here are eight foods with suggested serving sizes that may surprise you-plus some health consequences of such portion distortion.


Do the math: Even the most disciplined eaters have difficulty keeping their pizza intake to one slice. But even one slice of cheese pizza may be a dietary liability. Each contains about 12 fat grams and approximately 300 calories-or more, depending on the amount and types of cheese, and the size of the slice. Cheese has a fair amount of saturated fat, which is unhealthy for the heart, says Joan Salge Blake, M.S., R.D., a clinical associate professor of nutrition at Boston University and author of the college textbook Nutrition & You (Benjamin Cummings, 2007). And, she adds, many people just nibble off the cheese and sauce and leave the crusts, so they feel less full. “It’s the equivalent of eating a cheese meal,” says Blake.

The fix: Have a salad before you start eating the pizza, suggests Blake, who cites research showing that eating a salad with light dressing before a meal may help you reduce the calories of the main part of your meal by about 10 percent. And, if you’re eating out, she recommends you finish your salad-which probably will have helped sate your hunger-before placing your pizza order. You may then find that one slice, ideally topped with vegetables, is all you need. Making pizza at home, preferably with whole-grain dough and a generous amount of oven-roasted veggies to add flavor, is the best way to keep calories and fat low. Blake recommends you top it with a minimal amount of reduced-fat mozzarella or other cheese.

Salad dressing

Do the math: One of our favorite types of salad dressing is the blue cheese variety. Unfortunately, the typical serving size of two tablespoons of this dressing-which many people might consider minuscule-contains 16 fat grams, says Carol Byrd-Bredbenner, Ph.D., R.D., a professor of nutrition at Rutgers University. In other words, she says, 94 percent of the calories from this dressing are from fat.

“High fat intake is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and obesity,” she says. “This raises blood lipid levels, and fat can be deposited into arteries over time.”

The fix: The ideal, says Byrd-Bredbenner, is to stick with low-fat dressings. However, if you’re crazy about the blue cheese variety, you can combine low-fat and full-fat varieties together. Better yet, she says, is to make your own blue cheese dressing, using a very minimal amount of the high-fat ingredients. “Aim simply for flavor and not pieces of cheese,” she says.

Ice cream

Do the math: The standard serving size for ice cream is half a cup. But, Blake asks, how many people actually get four portions out of a pint, or 16 servings out of a half-gallon container? The danger, she says, is how quickly the calories add up. A half-cup serving of chocolate ice cream contains about 150 calories, she says. And, she notes, choosing a reduced-fat ice cream doesn’t always solve the problem. “Because it’s ‘light,’ people think they can eat more of it, and they often do,” she says. “Even though the fat is reduced, the ice cream will still contain a fair amount of calories, so over time, you put yourself at risk for obesity.”

With ice cream, the eye is easily fooled, she says. A study published in 2006 revealed that the participants who had chosen larger bowls unwittingly served themselves one-third more ice cream. People using larger serving spoons also dished out more of the sweet treat.

The fix: To help keep portions in check, buy an ice cream scoop, says Blake, or a small cup that will allow you to keep its contents to half a cup. Another trick, she suggests, is to fill an 8-ounce cup-a recycled yogurt container will do-halfway with ice cream, and then top it off with fresh fruit, such as low-calorie berries. And use common sense: “Don’t use the ice cream container as your bowl,” she says.

Orange juice

Do the math: Orange juice is one breakfast staple just about everyone can agree on. But, Blake says, many people tend to consume too much because it’s perceived as a healthy drink full of vitamins and phytonutrients. While it’s high in vitamin C, a typical eight-ounce serving contains about 112 calories, which can add up over time. And a recent study conducted at Rutgers University noted that a typical portion of orange juice has increased by 40 percent compared to 20 years ago.

Better to keep your OJ intake to one cup daily, and satisfy your fruit intake the rest of the time with whole fruit, including fresh, frozen or canned, says Blake. Whole fruit contains fiber, which makes for a more satisfying and filling snack, she says.

The fix: “Don’t guzzle out of the container!” advises Blake, who suggests pouring a small amount of juice-an ounce or two at a time-into water or sparkling water, which you can then sip slowly.

Soft drinks

Do the math: The typical eight-ounce serving of soft drink, such as cola, contains 95 calories and 24 grams of sugar, says Byrd-Bredbenner. But who guzzles just one cup?

Fast-food establishments regularly dispense 64-ounce containers filled with these beverages. But even a 32-ounce serving adds up to 96 sugar grams, which can significantly promote weight gain if consumed regularly. “Increased weight gain increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer,” she says, noting that tooth decay is another possible consequence.

The fix: “Drink water. It’s calorie free!” says Byrd-Bredbenner. If you prefer your beverages flavored, you have healthful and tasty options. Add lemon juice, or a little fruit juice, such as pomegranate, to regular or sparkling water, she says. Or try naturally flavored waters (read the label and avoid those with sugar, corn syrup or other sweeteners; experts say many commercially available flavored waters are high in empty calories). Buying diet soda, or diluting soft drinks with sparkling water, are other options.

If you don’t want to give up high-caloric soft drinks, buy smaller containers, or, if you’re at home or in your office, try pouring it into eight-ounce cups. Here’s a handy do-it-yourself tip for a 64-ounce bottle: Mark the bottle with a marker so that you’ve indicated eight equal portions so you can tell when you’ve poured out a full serving.

White rice

Do the math: Go to a restaurant, and you’re likely to receive a mound of white rice that’s the equivalent of between two or three cups. Without question, people tend to eat all the white rice they’ve given, even if it’s triple the amount they should be eating, says Connie Diekman, M.Ed., R.D., who counsels and oversees the nutritional needs of students at Washington University in St. Louis. A half-cup serving of white rice contains about 15 carbohydrate grams. Two cups boosts that to 60 grams. “Carbohydrates, whether ingested as fruits, vegetables, grains or table sugar, all end up in the body as glucose,” says Diekman. “If you take in more sugar than is necessary to support bodily activities, those carbs wind up as stored fat.” White rice’s low fiber content-a result of removing the outer layers-is at least partly to blame. Food that’s missing the healthful and filling fiber tends not to satisfy, she says.

The fix: Choose rice with veggies, suggests Diekman. She suggests starting with one cup of rice-visualize a portion the size of a baseball-and piling on either steamed, sautéed or microwaved vegetables. Experiment with flavors by adding small amounts of sauces. Then work your way to a half-cup portion of white rice no larger than half a baseball. If you’re a person who likes to see the rice unmixed with other ingredients, add some color to your plate, says Diekman. “Color improves the eating experience.”

Potato chips

Do the math: Those tiny 1-ounce bags that fit into the palm of your hand usually don’t satisfy most chip lovers. But that handful still contains 168 milligrams of sodium, which represents 11 percent to 14 percent of the adequate intake of between 1,200 and 1,500 milligrams for adults, says Byrd-Bredbenner. But beware when eating from a larger size bag. A 6-ounce bag-which is easy to finish off in one sitting-increases your sodium total to more than 1,000 milligrams. And, in moments of weakness, who hasn’t grabbed even a larger-sized bag? *

“About 10 percent of the population is sodium sensitive, which means you can increase your blood pressure if you increase your sodium intake,” she says, noting that high blood pressure is a risk for cardiovascular disease.The fix: Byrd-Bredbenner suggests buying unsalted chips. You can use herbs to flavor the chips, or sprinkle a minimal amount of salt on them, or use a combination of both strategies, she says. She advises checking the label on the back of the herb products you use to make sure there’s no added sodium. And, she adds, because 60 percent of calories in regular chips are from fat, it’s best to buy baked chips.

For portion control, potato chip fans can divide chips from large bags into more manageable, smaller bags. Or designate a bowl specifically for chips that, when filled to the brim, holds an appropriate number of chips.

March 20, 2009: The text for this slide originally contained erroneous information about the percent of sodium contained in a 1-ounce package of potato chips as it relates to the recommended intake for adults. The text also misstated the amount of sodium in a 6-ounce bag of potato chips. Both issues have been corrected


Do the math: If the burgers you love to eat spill out over the bun, chances are the patty’s too big. The dietary guideline for daily total cooked protein intake for adults is between 5 to 7 ounces, says Diekman. And, she says, even though meat shrinks during cooking, a very large burger could easily fulfill one’s suggested daily total protein allotment. Fat intake is another concern-a 4-ounce cooked burger can contain as many as 20 grams, up to half of that saturated.

Use a deck of cards to visually gauge 3 ounces of cooked meat.

Diekman cites a study that looked at college students’ perceptions of healthy portion sizes. Many people have either lost or never had the ability to make those assessments, she says, adding, “We eat out so frequently, that we now tend to eat larger-than-good-for-you restaurant portions at home.”

The fix: If you’re eating out, says Diekman, ask for a small patty, and request them broiled so the fat drips away. If small sizes are not possible, cut the burger into two portions as soon at it arrives at the table, and put one into a take-out container. Eating either soup or a salad before tackling your burger will help you feel satisfied with less meat, she says.

If you’re cooking at home, choose ground beef that’s more than 80 percent lean, she says, and add different ingredients-oatmeal (instead of bread crumbs), grated carrots, or fresh herbs, such as parsley or coriander-to a smaller amount of meat. Visualizing half a baseball is another way to measure about 4 ounces of meat, says Diekman.

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