On Food: Shrink this plate! Portion-size solutions
I grew up in Sweden and whenever I travel to the U.S. from Europe, ordering food is a somewhat shocking experience. The size of the portion is particularly mind-blowing. This much? Just for me? Just one portion? Wow. Then I get used to it. And surprisingly quickly.
Portion sizes have been steadily increasing in restaurants and stores over the past 50 years. Even the most famous visual meal in the world is getting bigger. Researchers have found that the quantity of food and plate sizes in paintings of “The Last Supper” have ballooned out over the years.
This trend, though not new, has skyrocketed recently – what was a “king-size” cup in the 1950s is now marketed and sold as a “kid’s size” soda. Our tendency to super-size has contributed to the epidemic of obesity and diabetes spreading across America. We can, in tandem with increasing portion sizes, trace a shift in perceptions of how much food is “normal” to eat.
In the case of portion sizes, context – the plate or cup – is easier to change than mindset.
The amount of food we serve ourselves is relative to the size and shape of the plate or cup we use, and research showing this correlation has prompted action. We eat, on average, 92% of what we serve ourselves and tend to eat 22% less just by eating from a 10’’ plate instead of a 12’’ plate. The Small Plate Movement, founded by Dr. Brian Wansink, a researcher and advocate, encourages people and restaurants to serve food on smaller plates. The movement sparked around 85 Chinese-food buffets in Pennsylvania to downsize their plates. Studies showing that we pour up to 30% more liquid into a short, wide glass compared to a tall, narrow glass led TGI Friday, Olive Garden and Red Lobster to use new glasses geared toward reduced consumption. Dr. Wansink is working with manufacturers to make smaller plates available again and has his own brand of plates.
Our behavior patterns are often determined when we are young, and the U.S. is faced with increasing levels of childhood obesity. Responding to this, some schools are teaching kids to recognize proper portion size. Serving students from kindergarten to university in Florida, Chartwells is a group of nutrition specialists that make portion sizes an emphasized part of class curriculum. Their strategy is to show correct portions of healthy meals, run nutrition education, and consciously guide students so that they learn how to make their own balanced choices of foods, snacks and drinks in the school cafeteria.
To help get us back to what a reasonable portion size looks like, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) has made a serving size card. A serving of ice cream here compares to half a baseball and a serving of steak (3 oz.) translates to a deck of cards.
Considering that my perception of U.S. portion sizes quickly recovers from the initial shock and adjusts to the obesity-contributing proportions, a serving size card and a smaller plate might just be useful.
Photo: Marco Antonio Islas Cruz