Yes, Big Portions Do Cause Overeating

I was at a local ice cream shop the other day. One of their signature products is homemade "sammies" - ice cream sandwiches made with cookies. And not just any cookies. These were two 4-inch cookies, with almost a cup of premium ice cream sandwiched in between. Calorie cost? My guesstimate is at least 800, much of it sugar and fat. Traditional ice cream sandwiches are less than 200. But does anyone eat small simple ice cream sandwiches anymore? Does anyone eat small portions of anything anymore?

Big portions lead to overeating. We all suspected that, but evidence was lacking. In a review, researchers combined data from 61 studies on calorie intake and portion sizes. Conclusion: big portions lead to overeating, about 500 calories per day of overeating.

You might think it's all about fast food: super-sized soft drinks and French fries. Certainly those are part of the problem, but not the whole problem. The Big Picture is this: we've been conditioned to expect supersized portions of everything:

  • giant bagels
  • cinnamon rolls the size of your head
  • triple ice cream cones
  • 1 lb steaks
  • 2 lb baked potatoes
  • bottomless bread baskets
  • all-you-can-eat buffets
  • 16 oz and larger frappuccinos, mochas, and other espresso drinks
  • a stack of 6 giant pancakes doused in syrup
  • extra large pizza
  • ice cream sandwiches made with over-sized cookies and a cup of premium ice cream.

Research shows that we eat the food we are served. Result: we've been conditioned to eat right past being hungry or satisfied to being stuffed. If you buy an 800+ calorie ice cream sandwich, are you going to throw half of it away once you feel satisfied?

People sometimes joke about the "See Food " diet: "I see food, I eat it." In fact, that may be the exact reason we have trouble controlling weight. Trying to control portions and your weight in this Big Portion world is not easy.

What can you do?

There are some simple things you can do in self-defense:

  1. Buy smaller dishware for home use. Use salad plates for your meals instead of giant dinner plates. Use small dessert bowls for cereal. Don't buy glasses larger than 12 oz, preferably 8 oz.

  2. At restaurants, ask for vegetable sides instead of chips or fries. Or ask that fries/chips be left off your plate, even if there are no substitutions.

  3. Avoid all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants, or restaurants that offer bottomless anything, from bread to pasta.

  4. At fast food restaurants, avoid Combo Meals, even if they appear to be a better value. They're not a better calorie value for you. Just order a single burger or sandwich.

  5. Don't order extra large pizza if it means you're tempted to eat too much.

  6. Don't eat out of food packages at home. If you open a 1 lb bag of chips, how likely are you to keep eating until they're all gone? Other package culprits: cookies, crackers, 1/2 gallons of ice cream, whole cakes or pies, value packages of doughnuts or pastries, 1/2 gallon bottles of soft drinks, etc.

  7. Don't put serving bowls on the table at meals. If the tempting food is sitting in front of you it's hard not to pick at it after you've cleaned your plate. That goes for pizza boxes and take-out containers.

Let's say portion control is all you do as a diet strategy. According to the above study, you could end up eating 500 fewer calories per day on average. That's the calorie deficit most weight loss diets recommend for healthy and sustainable weight loss.

Originally published September 23, 2015
Updated July 23, 2019

Donna P Feldman MS RDN is author of Feed Your Vegetarian Teen and Food Wisdom for Women: nutrition for aging with energy, vitality and health. Donna writes about food and nutrition at Radio Nutrition and is co-host of the Walk Talk Nutrition podcast.
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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.


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