My first job many years ago was at McDonald's where I worked for three (long) months during high school. I happened to be there when super sizing was first introduced. Yep, at one time I was personally responsible for asking people, "Would you like to super size that?". At the time, I had no idea of the implications that super sizing would have in our country. But I am not here to pick on McDonald's because expanding portions have hijacked our food supply in many other ways, too. In fact, one study found that portion sizes for 181 commonly consumed food items ranging from beer and soda to steak, cookies, and muffins have ballooned significantly over the last 40 years. Even "diet" foods, such as Weight Watchers and Lean Cuisine frozen entrees, have expanded in size. An analysis comparing original and updated recipes from the popular cookbook, "The Joy of Cooking", found that newer recipes now yield larger portions. It doesn't stop here. The sizes of standard dinner plates, bowls, and beverage and wine glasses have increased significantly, too. For example, the dinner plates I received as a wedding gift just a few years ago measure 11.5" in diameter. A standard sized dinner plate used to be about 7-9" in diameter 40-50 years ago, so that means my plates are about 33% bigger! This is where mindless eating comes into play. Short-term studies show that when people are served food in increasing portions, in larger packages, or on more sizable dinnerware, they tend to eat more. Researchers providing study participants with 6", 8", 10", or 12" deli sandwiches on different days found that the larger the sandwich, the more they consumed.
Why do we do this? Good question! There are a few possibilities. One is that as we have been increasingly exposed to greater portion sizes, we have become accustomed to those sizes. We rely on those measures to determine how much we should eat rather than measuring and weighing for accuracy. What seems extreme now has the tendency to become the new norm. An example? Big Macs...remember when that was considered HUGE? 20 ounce bottles of soda? Once unthinkable, but now it's normal because many other larger sandwiches have been introduced. Thank you, Carl's Jr. Another reason portion distortion could pose a problem is because we aren't very good at determining how many calories are in that portion, especially with larger portions. Finally, we have the tendency to rely on perceptual cues to determine how much food to serve ourselves (size of plate, bowl, glass). For example, serving smaller portions of food on a 12" plate may be perceived as an inadequate portion whereas if we serve the same portion of food on a 10" plate, we will believe the portion is more adequate. It's an optical illusion. The same goes for glasses. We have the tendency to pour more in a shorter, wider glass than a taller, skinnier one. See examples here.
Strategies to Manage
- Downsize. Purchase smaller or single-serving packages of food. Portion out larger packages of food into smaller ones (think snack baggies) or onto plates or bowls.
- Honey, I shrunk the plates! Use smaller plates, bowls, utensils, and serving dishes. By serving your food with smaller dinnerware, you're likely to eat less. Check out The Small Plate Movement, a challenge to participants to use 10" plates for the largest meal of the day for at least one month.
- Divvy it up. Order two appetizers instead of one large entree. Consume half of your regular order and take the other home. Share your dish with a mealtime companion.
- Load up. If you do end up using larger plates, fill half of the plate with vegetables and/or fruit. This way you'll satisfy yourself with a lot fewer calories and a lot more nutrition.
- Be an early bird. Prepare your plate in advance of the meal with smaller dinner portions.
- Deep and High. Replace shorter, wider glasses with taller, skinnier ones for caloric beverages like juice and alcohol.