10 January 12 Size Matters: A Quick & Dirty Guide to Controlling Portion Size

Although most of us think we are good guessers when it comes to portion size, we aren't! We are easily tricked into overestimating or underestimating portion size, and therefore, calories. Small differences in portion size might not seem like a big deal, but those differences add up over time and can help you make or break your weight goals. So learn tips on how to err on the side on minimizing, not maximizing calories. Most of the tips listed here are adapted from Brian Wansink's "Mindless Eating."

1. Container Size

We think portions are smaller when their containers are large and conversely, we think portions are larger when their containers are small. These tips are especially important for those of you who do not measure or who just measured a food or beverage once and then shifted to "guestimating" thereafter.

Use tall, skinny glasses instead of short, wide glasses. The same amount of liquid (e.g. 1 cup) will look like more in a tall, skinny glass than when it is contained in a short, wide glass. We tend to drink more calories from short, wide glasses. Practical tip: don't throw out your short, wide glasses – instead, use them for water. This will encourage you to drink more water.

Use smaller plates (8-9 inches) instead standard dinner plates (10-12 inches). Don't guess – take out a ruler or measuring tape and measure the total diameter of your plate. Are your plates really large? Consider using salad plates instead of dinner plates, or simply buy smaller dinner plates.

Use custard cups instead of bowls. Pyrex custard cups will hold about 1/2 cup or 4 fl oz without spilling over the sides. Regular-sized bowls can easily hold up to 12 fl oz (up to about 11/2 cups). Custard cups are perfect for ice cream, puddings, fresh fruit salad, and other foods that you wish to limit to a 1/2 cup serving.

2. Color & Contrast

If the food and dish have a similar color, then we are more likely "over serve" ourselves compared to a target amount (and therefore, eat more calories). Example: attempting to serve oneself one cup of cooked white pasta on a white plate. When the food and plate have a high color contrast, we tend to guess lower – that is, we tend to "under serve" ourselves (e.g. white pasta on a black plate). And interestingly, the reverse is true if the plate and tablecloth have a high contrast – we tend to over-serve food (e.g. white plate on a black tablecloth). The key is contrast rather than plate color per se. Van Ittersum and Wansink published a great article on this subject: "Plate Size and Color Suggestibility: The Delboeuf Illusion's Bias on Serving and Eating behavior." The article will be published in the Journal of Consumer Research, but it is accessible online ahead of print here. If you prefer a brief summary of that study, then check out Ann Lukits' article, "Tricking the Eye To Keep From Heaping Plates" in The Wall Street Journal, November 29, 2011.

3. See All You Eat

Assemble all meal components (prepared, that is) so that you see everything you are about to eat for that meal. Once you finish your meal, do not go back for seconds. When we eat multiple courses, we lose track of how much we have eaten and tend to eat more calories. Keeping visual reminders on the table of how much food or drink we have consumed (e.g. empty beer or soda bottles, empty plates, bowls, or glasses, bones, etc.) helps us eat fewer calories than if there are no visual reminders. Practical tip: avoid "all you can eat" restaurant specials and buffets.
Katherine Isacks, MPS, RD
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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.


Dining Out/Portion Size & Calories Weight Loss/Food Environment

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