Portions and our Calories

Portions and our Calories

25th April 2019

Upon hearing that the people had no bread shortly before the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette, reportedly suggested 'Let them eat cake'. What history doesn't record, is whether she mentioned how much cake to eat! And the amount to eat can be precisely the problem for many people and families.

There are lots of people out there who are worried about their weight. For many, there is a simple, but often misunderstood, reason why they are putting on weight or struggling to get their weight under control - the size of their portions. The size of snacks and meals eaten outside of the home have been getting larger in the last few decades. While at the same time, the amount of food we dish up in our own homes has been growing. This all contributes to us eating and drinking more energy than our body needs. In our recent survey on what topics should be in a 12-week online weight management programme, 77% of respondents answered that they wanted more information on portion sizes.

All of us store the extra energy we have eaten and not used up through exercise. Unfortunately, for us most of this extra energy is stored in the body as fat. That is why healthy weight advice will always recommend both increasing physical activity levels and decreasing total energy intake.

I have met many people over the years who say they do not understand why they are not losing weight as they eat a 'healthy diet'. It is very important not just to consider those obvious high energy foods - crisps, chips, sweets and alcohol - for many people, their excess energy intake can be partly explained by the portion sizes of the foods they are eating.

Research has shown that there is no doubt that the portion sizes we now see as normal were a few decades ago seen as large. It might come as no surprise to hear that portion sizes of 'fast foods' eaten outside the home have increased since the 1970s. Do you recall the trend to 'super sizing' portions in fast food restaurants? Researchers suggest that these larger portions eaten outside the home influence our overall eating habits. Certainly, there is no question that we now serve and eat these larger portion sizes when we cook at home. We seem to have lost sight of what 'normal' portions are, and frequently underestimate the portions families eat at home.

We also have a modern fashion for having larger plates. An interesting study from Cornell University carried out an experiment where it showed that there is a tendency to eat to the size of the plate and spoon. So large plates and bowls leads us to have larger meal sizes without us being aware.

How easy is it to eat larger amounts without realising? Take crisps as an example. 20 years ago or so the average size of a packet was 25g. Nowadays, this 'small' packet size can still be found in some multi packs. The more normal size now for crisps is around 35g, with some 'grab and snack' packets even 50g. This is double the size of packets in the 1990s, increasing the calorie value of a packet from around 130 calories to 260 calories. That would take the average amongst us a 30 minute bike ride to burn this off! The way some products are marketed have moved us towards a 'value for money' frame of mind on portion size. Indeed, it can actually cost us less to buy larger portion sizes in value packs.

Work from the US Children's Nutrition Research Center has shown that offering larger portions to young children can affect their energy intake. Children offered larger meal sizes eat a larger amount and therefore take in more energy. This work suggests that children being given larger portion sizes than they need can start to override their own natural inbuilt feeling of fullness from ages as young as 2 years. I have worked with many families were everyone is served the same amount, from dad down to the youngest family member. It is therefore very important that parents have a good understanding of what are the correct portion sizes for children at different ages.

A useful tool to remember is the handy portion sizes, as all our hand sizes differ with age this helps to keep the portion sizes age appropriate  -

  • Carbohydrate portion is the size of the person eating it's fist
  • Protein foods size of the person eating it's palm of the hand
  • Fruit or vegetable portion is how much the person eating it can hold in their hand.

Also consider using smaller plates for family meals and weighing out the dry ingredients before cooking to stop cooking excess amounts. All these tips will help you avoid feeding yourself and your family more calories than they need. Eating less by reducing portion sizes is an important ingredient of helping us and our families reduce their total energy intake and manage all our weights.

I hope you have enjoyed this blog. Please let me know if you have any comments, I always enjoy reading them.

Dr Laura Stewart

April 2019


Main picture is from Center for Disease Prevention and Control & World Cancer research Fund found in the BMJ 2015