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 Nutrition in the Real World

When a Portion Isn’t a Portion

The feature box “When a Portion Isn’t a Portion”  takes  a  look  at  how  portion  sizes  have  changed over the years, and how portion distortion can adversely affect our health.

What is a portion of pasta? The answer depends on who is serving you the pasta. A portion is the amount of food eaten at one sitting. At home, a portion of pasta would be the amount that you heap on your plate. In a restaurant, it’s the amount that they serve you, which can vary enormously among eating establishments.

On the other hand, the FDA defines a serving size as a standard amount of food that is customarily consumed. The FDA groups foods together into similar categories and standardizes the serving sizes of the foods within each group.

These reference serving sizes are used on the Nutrition Facts panel of the food label.

For example, the serving size for pasta is one cup, no matter what brand of pasta you purchase. Standardizing serving sizes among similar foods not only allows for consistency when choosing foods in the supermarket, but also helps the consumer get a ballpark idea of what a typical serving should be.

However, when following the recommendations in MyPyramid, the portion size for pasta is only half a cup. Why the difference between the foods labels and this tool for healthy eating? MyPyramid sets portion sizes based on many different factors, one of which is the nutrient and calorie content of the foods in each group. All the foods in the grain group, which contains foods such as pasta, bread, and rice, provide similar amounts of nutrients and calories. The calories in half a cup of pasta are similar to the calories of the other foods in the group, such as a slice of bread.

As you know, most times, the portions of the foods that you eat don’t coincide with the standard serving size on the food label or the portion sizes listed in MyPyramid. A generous helping of cooked pasta that spills over the edge of a plate is probably equal to about 3 cups, which is triple the amount listed on the food label and six times the size designated in MyPyramid.

How Have Portion Sizes Changed?

The restaurant industry has appealed to your desire to get the most food for your money by expanding restaurant portion sizes, especially of inexpensive foods, such as potatoes and coffee.  When McDonalds first introduced rench fries in1954, the standard serving weighed 2.4 ounces. Although a small 2.5-ounce size (230 calories) is available on the menu today, you can also choose the medium rench fries weighing 4.1 ounces (380 calories) or the large at 5.4 ounces (500 calories). Twenty years ago, a cup of coffee was 8 ounces and a mere 45 calories with added milk and sugar. Today, consumers enjoy 16-ounce lattes on their way to work, to the tune of 350 calories.  The difference in costs to the restaurants for the larger sizes is minuscule compared with the perceived “value” of the larger portion to the consumers. Customers will frequent a restaurant more often if they think they are getting a bargain for their buck.

Unfortunately, from a health standpoint, research shows that even slight changes in the portion sizes of foods can lead to increased calorie intake and weight gain.

As you have read, being overweight increases the risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, joint problems, and even some types of cancers.  Downsizing your portions could downsize your health risks.

Here are some tips to help you control your portion sizes:

At Home

- Measure your food until you develop an “eye” for correct portion sizes.

- Use smaller plates so portions appear larger.

- Plate your food at the counter before sitting down at the table or in front of the television.

- Store leftover foods in portion-controlled containers.

- Don’t eat snacks directly from the box or bag; measure a portion first, then eat only that amount.

- Cook smaller quantities of food so you don’t pick at the leftovers.

Eating Out

- Ask for half orders when available.

- Order an appetizer as your main entrée.

- Don’t be compelled to “clean your plate”; stop eating when you’re full and take the rest home.

Food Shopping      

- Divide a package of snacks into individual portion sizes and consume only that amount at any one sitting.

- Be aware of the number of servings in a package; read the labels.

- Buy foods in pre-portioned servings such as a 1-ounce sliced cheese or snack and 100-calorie microwave popcorn.

The Take-Home Message

The Exchange Lists for meal planning group foods according to their macronutrient content and are used to plan diets for individuals with diabetes and in some weight-loss programs.

A few words about the exchange lists

The Exchange Lists for Meal Planning were designed in 1950 to give people with diabetes a structured eating plan. The lists are still in use. The Exchange Lists group foods together according to their carbohydrate, protein, and fat composition and provide specific portion sizes for each food. This assures that each food in the group contributes a similar amount of calories per serving. Some weight-loss programs have adopted a similar meal planning tool to help their members manage their weight by controlling the number of calories that they consume. Because of the similarity of the foods within each group, foods can be exchanged or swapped with each other at meals and snacks. This flexible meal plan is a useful tool to control calorie, carbohydrate, protein, and fat intakes.

Exchange Lists for Meal Planning - A grouping of foods, in specific portions, according to their carbohydrate, protein, and fat composition to ensure that each food in the group contributes a similar amount of calories per serving.

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