4 Strategies for Combatting Portion Distortion

Are your eyes bigger than your stomach? If so, you’re not alone. Portion distortion has become a common problem in the past several decades and is a major contributor to the obesity epidemic.

Portion distortion refers to the normalization of large food portion sizes. Some of the problems trickle down from food manufacturers. For example, the average soda size increased from 6.5 ounces in 1993 to 20 ounces in 2013, at the cost of an extra 163 calories. Drink a couple of those per day, and the calories really start to add up.

Really, though, it’s easy to overestimate a proper serving size even for healthy foods you make at home. If you’re trying to lose weight, getting your portion sizes in check is one step you can take starting right now, and that can make a major impact on your results. Let’s look at a few ways to combat portion distortion at home and while dining out at restaurants.

Look at the Serving Size

Serving size and portion size are often thrown around interchangeably, but they’re actually quite different.

Portion size refers to the amount of food you serve yourself. By contrast, the serving size is a specific food measurement that’s provided by food manufacturers, typically using standards set by the USDA. In other words, the portion size that you serve yourself may actually be (and probably often is) more than one serving size.

Packaged foods include the serving size on the nutrition facts label. You don’t need to stick with this serving size, but you do need to do a little calorie or macro math if you’re concerned with the nutritional impact of the foods you eat.

 Food label from food package

For example, the serving size (line three of text) is 2/3 cup. If you decide to have 1 full cup, then you’ll be eating more calories (345, to be exact). Same goes for fat, carbs, and protein. I know, I’m such a fun-ruiner.

What if your food doesn’t have a label? You can find serving size and nutrition facts for most foods using an app like MyFitnessPal. When the results for the food that you search pop up, just look for the version of your food in the list that has a little green checkmark next to it. This means that the information has been verified.

Weigh and Measure

I’m a dietitian, but that doesn’t mean I’m immune to portion distortion. I have to be just as careful as the next guy!

I like to test myself every now and again by eyeballing a proper serving size from the label of a food I eat often (like oats), then pour it into a measuring cup to check my work. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I’m often way off on my estimates, but this speaks to the importance of weighing and measuring.

Weighing and measuring is the most accurate way to combat portion distortion. This simply involves measuring your food using a scale, measuring spoons, or measuring cups before you eat.

Now, I don’t recommend this method for everyone, and I certainly don’t recommend it long-term. It’s best not to weigh or measure at all If you have a history of disordered eating or obsessive thoughts about food, as doing so may trigger unhealthy food obsessions.

However, in the absence of eating disorders, measuring your food at the beginning of a new meal plan is a predictor of success. Try it for a week or two, then for a couple of days every so often to stay accountable to your plan.

Use the Hand Method to Combat Portion Distortion

Even if you’re trying to weigh and measure your food, there will be occasions when you can’t or don’t want to. I don’t know about you, but I lack the moxie to bust out my food scale during dinner at a nice restaurant.

This is where the hand method comes in handy (see what I did there?!?). You can come pretty darn close to a healthy portion size for healthy foods using your hands as guidelines.

chart showing how the hands can be used to estimate portion sizes for each food group

Start building your plate with a portion size of nonstarchy veggies about the size of two fists. Add a portion of healthy fats about the size of your thumb, plus a portion of lean protein the thickness and size of your palm (fellas, you can have two palms worth). Finish your plate with 1/2 fist of starch if you’re a lady, or 1 fist worth if you’re a guy.

Is it a perfect method always? Nope. You may over- or undereat at times, and the method is also dependent upon choosing wholesome and nutritious foods. However, the tradeoff of not weighing or measuring foods while combatting portion distortion is worth it in many cases.

Consider Packaged Foods (Selectively)

Not to be a food snob, but most packaged foods are garbage (nutritionally speaking).

However, there are a handful of packaged foods that are perfectly healthy AND that offer built-in portion control. I find these foods especially helpful at snack times. Some of my favorites include mini hummus or guacamole cups, 100 calorie packs of nuts, single-serving bags of air-popped popcorn, and RxKids bars.

Of course, sometimes we crave foods that are less healthy. This is also a great strategy for highly palatable “sometimes foods” that we have trouble eating in moderation (such as Cheetos).

Try out one or more of these tips for managing portion distortion and see how you do! And if you need help, we are here for you. Click here to book a free 15-minute nutrition intro.

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