If you’ve been eating for the past 20 years, you’ve been a victim of Portion Distortion.  Most foods are 2 – 5 times larger than they were years ago.

  • In 1960, muffins weighed 2-3 ounces.  Today, muffins typically weigh-in at more than 6 ounces.
  • The original burger at Burger King weighed 3.9 ounces, including the bun.  Today the Whopper Junior is 6 ounces, and the Double Whopper is 12.6 ounces.
  • Potato chips used to come in 1-ounce servings.  Now, the average bag contains 2-4 ounces.

(Want to test your portion distortion knowledge?  Take these fascinating quizzes.)

Research shows that packaging influences how much we eat.  Bigger bags = bigger bellies.  It’s all about habits.

  • One study shows that people eat more from half-filled large packages than they do from completely full, medium-sized bags – even when the bags contain the same amount of food.  The larger bag encourages people to eat more.
  • Most people eat as if their mission is to finish the food – whatever size the serving.  One scholar calls this Mindless Eating.

Portion problems don’t apply to kids, right?

Unfortunately, kids join the “clean your plate” club at a young age.  Some studies show that 3 year olds tend to eat until they’re full, but 5 year olds eat until the food is gone.  Other studies show that portion distortion happens even younger.

See Size Matters for more on this.

It’s ironic that we spend our kids’ early years encouraging them to eat more, and their teen years worrying that they are eating too much.  Studies show:

  • It’s what we get used to, not how hungry we are, that determines what we eat.
  • People try to eat the same visual amount of food from meal to meal.
  • Larger portions suggest larger consumption norms.  They teach us what is the “normal” or “appropriate” amount to consume.

What can you do?  Get your children in the habit of eating smaller portions.

  • Serve your children small servings at meals.  Figure out how much they’ll probably eat and then serve them a little bit less. It will help your kids figure out how much they want to eat and keep you from dancing the 2-More-Bites-Tango.
  • Don’t let your children help themselves from large bags of chips, pretzels, Booty, etc.  Instead, repackage these mammoths into smaller containers.
  • Share (or halve) restaurant meals, even if you are ordering from the children’s menu.
  • Remind your children to be mindful eaters by paying attention to what’s in their tummies, not what’s on the table.

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~



National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Portion Distortion Quiz (http://hp2010.nhlbihin.net/portion) accessed on November 10, 2009.

Young, L. R., 2005. The Portion Teller Plan: the No-Diet Reality Guide to Eating, Cheating, and Losing Weight Permanently. New York: Morgan Road Books a division of Doubleday Broadway, Random House, Inc.

Wansink, B. 2004. “Environmental Factors That Increase the Food Intake and Consumption Volume of Unknowing Consumers.” Annual Review of Nutrition 24: 455-79.

——, 2006. Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. New York: Bantam Books.