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In today’s world of “super-sized” meals it has become very easy to overeat. One of the problems is that portion sizes at eat-in restaurants or take-out eateries are often two to five times larger than when first introduced. 

In the home, the trend towards super-sized portions is also creeping into our eating habits. Scientific research suggests that we’re serving food on larger plates and eating more than we should when it comes to portion sizes of home-cooked foods. 

Another factor is that many food manufacturers have increased the amount of food in their suggested “individual servings” of many snacks and prepared foods sold in grocery stores and other food outlets.

With super-sized portions marketed to us from so many angles, it makes achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight all the more difficult for millions of people across Canada and elsewhere around the world. 

Weight gain is the crux of the problem. Super-sized meals are literally adding to our bulk. Here’s why:

  • Larger portions of foods provide more energy (or calories) than do more moderate portions.  When you take in more energy than you need, the extra is stored as fat, which contributes to weight gain. 

Over the last fifteen to twenty years, the impact of increased portion sizes on the “waistline” or body weight of individuals has become a real concern. Part of the concern is due to the association between being overweight and chronic disease, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

In recent years, registered dietitians and other health professionals across Canada have expressed concerns about overconsumption and the prevalence of super-sized meals, commonly referred to as “portion distortion.” Far too many Canadians are losing touch with what “healthy portions” of food should be.

To combat the major problem of “portion distortion,” health professionals have developed tools to help people get back in touch with how much they should be eating to maintain a healthy body weight.


Measuring Portion Sizes

How does a person begin to recognize a healthy portion size? A good place to start is Health Canada’s Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide.  The guide defines what a healthy portion size looks like. It also makes recommendations, by age and gender, for the number of daily servings of different food groups, including:

  • vegetables and fruit;
  • grain products;
  • milk and alternatives; and
  • meat and alternatives.

“Some people may struggle with the suggestion that they eat, for example, seven to eight servings of vegetables and fruit each day,” says Maureen Elhatton, a registered dietitian in Edmonton who consults with individual clients. “A person may feel ‘I can’t possibly consume this much.’ They need to understand, though, that a serving is generally defined as half a cup, which is not necessarily the same as eight whole pieces.”

Elhatton encourages clients to use a set of measuring cups and spoons. “People can measure out the amount of food they’re consuming. Then, as they gradually begin to understand what half a cup of vegetables looks like on the plate, they won’t need to measure it anymore.”

In addition to measuring their foods, health professionals encourage people to use commonly known objects, such as tennis balls and hockey pucks, as tools to estimate healthy portion sizes. This can be a good approach, provided the objects used as a reference point are always a consistent size.  For example, using a cell phone as a reference may not work well, because cell phones come in different shapes and sizes.    

Alberta Health and Wellness suggests using the following objects as a guide to healthy portion sizes:

  • Baseball: 250 ml or 1 cup (one food guide serving of salad, cold cereal or milk)
  • Tennis ball: 175 ml or ¾ cup (one food guide serving of hot cereal, yogurt, beans, lentils or tofu)
  • Hockey puck: 125 ml or ½ cup (one food guide serving of vegetables or fruit)
  • Two golf balls: 60 ml or ¼ cup (one food guide serving of dried fruit, nuts or seeds
  • Two white erasers: 50 g or 1.5 oz (one food guide serving of cheese)
  • Golf ball: 30 ml or 2 tablespoons (one food guide serving of peanut butter)

Alberta Health Services also recommends that adults can use their own hands to measure and therefore help to control food portion sizes.  For example, use the tip of your thumb to measure one teaspoon or 5 ml of butter or oil, while two full thumbs equal 1.5 ounces or 50 g of cheese.


Other Portion Control Tips

In addition to learning to measure or estimate a healthy portion, nutrition experts also recommend that we monitor the size of our plates.

“Plates have gotten bigger,” says Maureen McKay, a registered dietitian who counsels  and educates students at the University of Alberta Health Centre. Considering that most people want to sit down to a plate that is full of food, it makes sense to reduce portion size by using a smaller plate.

To help achieve balance in a diet, think of the following when filling a plate: one-quarter meat and alternatives, one-half vegetables and one-quarter whole grains.

Both Elhatton and McKay suggest similar ways to avoid large portion sizes in restaurants: 

  • Avoid the temptation to eat an overly large meal. Eat half, take the rest home, put it in the fridge, and eat it for lunch the next day.
  • When eating with a group, order one less main course than the number in the group. Ask for an extra plate and share the courses among the group. Order only one appetizer or dessert and share the food among the group, asking the server for extra utensils.
  • Buy one large sandwich for two people and cut it in half.
  • Ask for a half serving, such as a half sandwich and small soup combination.

Striking a Balance

As with all other nutritional advice, the key to success is smaller portions of healthy food choices from all four food groups in Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide.

For example, McKay’s clients at the University of Alberta include students who may face a number of challenges when it comes to healthy eating. Some may be overeating while some may underestimate the amount of food they need. Others may still be growing and need additional amounts of food.  Many are also dealing with high stress levels due to their studies or other matters, which can contribute to overeating, undereating or unhealthy eating.

McKay doesn’t insist that her clients always stay within nutritional guidelines. “We don’t want people counting every gram of food they eat,” she explains.

She steers clients away from feeling anxious about food by talking with them about the “fun in food.” She tells them they need the “freedom to eat.” For example, she suggests that cake and cookies can be part of the joy of eating and can be used as “choose sometimes” foods, within a healthy diet.


Taking Control

Huge plates and super-sized menu items have created a demand for practical advice on how to control portion sizes, both at home and in restaurants.  As a result Health Canada, Alberta Health and Wellness, and non-governmental organizations such as Alberta Health Services and the Canadian Diabetes Association, have all developed easy-to-follow guidelines to help us avoid portion distortion, overeating and unnecessary weight gain.  

Learn More

Healthy Alberta: Serving Sizes for Children

* Food Guide Serving Sizes for Children 1-5 years

* Food Guide Serving Sizes for Children 6-12 years

* Food Guide Serving Sizes for Youth 13-18 years

Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide

EatRight Ontario: Understanding Portion Sizes

Canadian Diabetes Association: Plan Your Portions

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