Why Portion Sizes are Important

By Floria, Barbara

You've heard the news that much of America -- including its kids -- is overweight or obese. If you are in that crowd and want to lose the extra pounds, the first step is to know what and how much you're eating.

One large obstacle is that most people are serving-size challenged, thanks to today's large portions: mega-muffins, heaping plates of pasta, behemoth burgers and extra-large bagels.

According the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), a "portion" can be thought of as the amount of a specific food you choose to eat. Portions can be bigger or smaller than the recommended food servings. A "serving" is a unit of measure used to describe the amount of food recommended from each food group. For example, a recommended serving of whole grains would be one slice of bread or a half cup of rice or pasta. Current recommendations are for 6 to 11 servings of whole grains a day.

"We consume much more than we think we do," says Edgar Chambers IV, Ph.D., professor of human nutrition at Kansas State University. "This is especially true with condiments, such as salad dressing and butter; foods eaten one at a time, such as french fries; and foods spread out on plates, such as pasta."

Expanding waist lines

About two-thirds of adult Americans are overweight or obese, and about 16 percent of children and adolescents ages 6 to 19 years also are overweight, according to the NHLBI and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC says that behavior and genetics contribute to this problem. Your genes influence how your body burns calories for energy and how it stores fat. Your behavior -- the amount of food consumed and the amount of daily activity -- determines if you will gain weight. Your cultural attitude, financial situation and environmental factors, as well as your individual characteristics influence how much you eat and exercise.  

Every day, your body uses calories to perform activities such as breathing, digestion and moving around. If you eat more calories than needed for these activities, the extra calories are stored as fat. For an average adult, this means that eating 100 more calories a day causes a weight gain of about 1 pound in a month. Regular physical activity will burn excess calories and prevent weight gain.

If you need to lose weight, try reducing your daily calories by 500, so that you can lose one pound per week. You can do this by eating 250 calories less per day and exercising enough to burn 250 calories. To better control your calorie intake, you need to know what and how much you're eating.

Measure the food, if you can

Measure your food with measuring cups and spoons and keep a food diary, comparing your typical servings (and calories) with the standard serving sizes listed on food labels. In a study Dr. Chambers published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, he found those who pre-measured their food were the most accurate judges of standard portion sizes.

"Measuring can really help you see what three ounces of deli meat looks like," says Dr. Chambers. Sound like a lot of work? Don't worry -- you don't have to keep at it. After a week of measuring and comparing, you'll have a solid sense of what a half-cup of cereal or a teaspoon of mayonnaise looks like. With french fries, potato chips, M and Ms and other hand-to-mouth, tough-to-measure foods, count out a serving beforehand. If your diet allows you eight french fries, eat no more than that.

Determine portions in other ways

If you're not up to retrieving measuring tools, make do with what you have handy, such as your hands.

"The palm of your hand is the right amount for meat, chicken or fish," says Kathleen Johnson, M.S., R.D., a consulting nutritionist in Arizona. With peanut butter, a standard serving is about the size of a ping pong ball, or two tablespoons. A standard serving of ketchup or low-fat or nonfat salad dressing is the size of an Oreo. An appropriate amount of cooked rice or pasta -- not the double portion restaurants typically serve -- equals the size of one-half of a baseball, or half a cup. So does a serving of vegetables, with the exception of mashed potatoes, a normal amount of which resembles an ice-cream scoop. For potato chips, aim for the amount in those tiny bags that go in kids' lunch boxes.

Did You Know?

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