Battling Portion Distortion

Keeping an eye on your food portions is an important part of managing both your weight and your diabetes. But the fact is, controlling portions is hard. Larger-than-ever portions of food are everywhere, from bagel shops to restaurants to movie theaters. And when people are faced with large amounts of food, not surprisingly, they eat more.

Portion size vs. serving size vs. diabetes food list servings
Several years ago, I wrote about the difference between a portion size and a serving size. A portion size is the amount of food that you actually eat. For example, you might decide to eat 10 potato chips or the entire bag. A serving size, on the other hand, is typically listed on the Nutrition Facts panel of a food package and is a standardized measurement of the amount of food that is usually eaten at one time. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) determines serving size guidelines for many types of foods. No doubt you’ve read a food label and seen a serving size, such as 1/2 cup of Ben & Jerry’s Salted Caramel Core ice cream.


Then come the diabetes food choice lists, also known as diabetes exchange lists. Diabetes food choice lists group similar foods together, such as carbohydrate foods, protein foods, and fat foods. Serving sizes of foods in these lists are aimed at keeping the amount of carbohydrate, protein, and fat consistent. For example, the serving size of protein food is aimed at providing about 7 grams of protein per serving. These food servings don’t always match the serving on a Nutrition Facts label, however. The serving size of Simply Orange orange juice, for instance, is 8 ounces, but on a diabetes food list, the serving is 4 ounces.

Portion pitfalls
Not reading the label. It’s common for people to glance over (if not completely ignore) the serving size on a food label. Let’s face it — we’re all busy, and who has time to read labels? Or maybe you do read the label, but your focus might be on, say, carbohydrate grams or how much sodium is in that can of soup. But not checking the serving size can really trip you up, especially when you realize that the serving size of that Progresso Chicken Noodle Soup is 1 cup and that there are two servings in a 19-ounce can.

Eating style. Are you sure you’re really eating 1 cup of spaghetti or 4 ounces of chicken? You might want to check again. Brian Wansink, the director of Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab, has done some very interesting research in the area of portion control. He’s discovered that how much people eat is often influenced by the size plate they eat from, the color of the plate, and whether the food is served family-style (on the table) or from the stove.

Distracted eating. In the age of technology, people often pay little attention to what and how much they eat. They’re too busy catching up on e-mail, texting their friends, or watching cat videos on YouTube. The downside of distracted eating is that — you guessed it — people eat more.

Taking charge
You don’t have to fall victim to portion distortion. In addition to reading labels, there are some easy ways to keep portions in check.

Weigh and measure. It’s worth the time and effort to dig out your measuring cups and use them to measure out your pasta, rice, mashed potatoes, or cereal. Dust off the food scale (or buy one for a few dollars) and weigh out those 3 ounces of fish or 1 ounce of cheese. Doing so, even for a few days, will boost your “guesstimation” skills, which comes in handy when you eat away from home. Hint: Always measure and weigh after the food has been cooked.

Use your hands. In a pinch, your hand can come in “handy.” Your palm is equal to about 3–4 ounces of protein. Your fist is the size of 1 cup of, say, pasta. The length of your thumb is about one tablespoon of peanut butter, and the tip of your thumb is a teaspoon of mayonnaise.

Use smaller plates and bowls. Dinner plates these days are more like platters. Eating off a plate that’s 9 inches or less in diameter can keep portions more reasonable. You might even try eating from a salad or dessert plate.

Repackage your snack foods. Try to avoid eating out of a bag or box. Portion out your pretzels, crackers, or nuts, for example, into snack-size sandwich bags.

Share a meal. Restaurants tend to serve large portions. Consider sharing an entrée with your spouse or friend; order a salad or a bowl of soup to round out the meal.

Eat regular meals. Skipping meals can lead to overeating later on. Miss lunch and you’ll be starving by dinnertime — all bets on eating reasonable amounts of food go out the window. Stick with a regular meal and snack schedule as much as possible.

Turn off the electronics. It’s tempting to catch up on the evening news or Downton Abbey while eating dinner, but the reality is that gluing yourself to the TV (or cell phone or iPad) guarantees that you’ll eat more than you realize. Ditch the technology and focus on your food and your family, instead.

Ditch family-style eating. Rather than placing bowls and platters of food directly on the table, keep them on the stove or the counter. You’ll likely think twice about that second helping of mac and cheese if you have to get up from the table to get more!

It’s not always easy, but practicing “portion management” can make it easier for you to manage diabetes, your weight, and your health.