Portion Distortion: Size Does Matter

June 25, 2015

Kristin Schrieber, MS, RDN, LDN, helped support Nicole Diego, Dietetic Intern, MBA Candidate at Dominican University, on this post.

As a dietetic intern, for years I have known the importance of portion control. It has been encouraged since the United States Department of Agriculture released the first food guide in 1916. Although it’s not a groundbreaking concept, learning how to portion control is more vital than ever.

For the first time in history, the amount Americans spend on dining out overtook grocery store purchases in March, according to Commerce Department data. This spike in spending may reflect the eating habits of the emerging Millennial generation as they are more willing to spend on “food away from home.” As stated by the National Restaurant Association, “Millennials view dining out as a social event (i.e., a chance to connect),” which explains their willingness to spend more at restaurants versus buying groceries and cooking at home.

But what does this have to do with portion control, you may ask? Over the past 20 years, portion sizes at restaurants have gotten larger. The upward shift in size and calories per serving at restaurants, also known as portion distortion, can not only increase the amount of food that one would eat in a sitting, but their waistline along with it.

As health and wellness professionals, we all understand the health benefits of portion control. The amount of food eaten every day should be equal to a person’s caloric needs and activity level in order for them to obtain energy balance and maintain a healthy weight. For a person who frequently dines out, educating them on portion control could be one key to helping them enjoy their meals, while still being mindful of their health. Here are a few tips to help your clients with portion control, especially when dining out:

Many people don’t know what a healthy portion is. Use MyPlate to help educate your patients on the daily recommended serving sizes for proteingrainsdairy foods, vegetables and fruits.

Extra calories provided by today’s portions can really add up. Create awareness around portion distortion by using resources, like this slide show that shows how today’s food portions compare to 20 years ago.

Some meals at restaurants have portions that are enough for multiple people. Encourage splitting meals with a friend. The incentive of saving money, while also helping save calories, may be all the motivation needed!

Realistically, food measurement tools are not the best way for patients to portion foods, especially when dining out. While working at a residential eating disorder treatment center, I helped patients learn proper portion sizes by using measurement tools, then gradually had them rely on eyeballing the proper portion sizes. Try using your hand or even common household items to help estimate portions. Ask for a box at the beginning of the meal and put 25 – 50 percent in the container for another meal. Try to order a half portion.

Portion control can be hard to adjust to, especially if a person is accustomed to eating larger-sized meals. However, acknowledging this obstacle will assure your client that they not only still can be satisfied, but also practice portion control to help lead them down a healthier path.


Nicole Diego