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Portion Distortion - How much is on your plate?

I love to eat out. Like many Americans, I'm busy, and I enjoy the convenience of grabbing a quick bite. Over the past 20 years, the number of meals Americans eat outside their homes has been steadily increasing. By the year 2000, on average, we were eating more than four meals a week from restaurants and fast food places. Lurking behind this trend is one of the culprits of America's growing obesity problem.

To outdo their competition, many restaurants have jumped on the "supersize everything" bandwagon. Portions are so huge the terms small, medium and large no longer apply. Now it's more like big, huge and gigantic. We've started to get used to eating up to a pound of food at one sitting. Over time, all those extra calories have been adding up and moving right to America's waist.

Care to reverse the trend?

In my article "Trainer in a Box," I suggested that to get weight under control, you should try tracking your calories in a food log. It's a great tool to make yourself aware of just how much you're eating and start making informed decisions to cut back. There was one big problem with that suggestion, and several of you were quick to point it out.

It's difficult to accurately gauge just how much food is in those restaurant servings! When I quizzed a few clients, they were almost always underestimating how much they were eating. It's called "portion distortion." When I dug a little deeper, it turns out when questioned; even the experts get it wrong.

Nutrition consultant Lisa Young showed 200 dietitians five plates of food typically served in restaurants. Many had no idea how many calories were in the foods they were shown. Some underestimated the calories by half!

If the experts couldn't do it, how can you?

It's easy. (Didn't you just know I'd have a solution?) Use the common items listed below and compare your serving sizes to them. Not sure how many ounces that steak has in it? Compare it to a deck of cards. Don't know how much salad dressing is acceptable? Hold it next to a shot glass or compare it to a ping pong ball. Each of these common items can give you a fairly accurate estimate of how large or small a particular serving is.

If the portions are too large, you can ask for a doggie bag and cut it down to size before you start eating. You won't leave feeling stuffed, and you'll have another meal you can easily reheat later.

To make sure you're watching things at home, keep these items in a bowl on your kitchen counter and use them as a quick reference to avoid portion distortion when you're cooking for yourself.

Matchbook Picture

1 ounce of meat

(Beef, Poultry of Pork)

Deck of Cards Picture
Deck of Cards

3 ounces of meat

(Beef, Poultry or Pork)

Checkbook Picture

3 ounces of white fish

(Flounder, Sole or Grouper)

Shot Glass and Ping Pong Ball Picture
Ping Pong Ball or Shotglass

2 Tablespoons

(Salad Dressing)

Postage Stamp Picture
Postage Stamp

1 teaspoon

(Butter or Margarine)

Baseball Picture

1 cup

(Cereal, Popcorn, Pasta or Potatoes)

Dominos Picture
2 Dominos

1 ounce


After awhile, spotting oversized food and cutting it down to size will become second nature. It's a simple step you can take for your health. Be aware and show your body you care.

How much do you remember? Click Here for our Portion Distortion quiz.

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CAUTION: Check with your doctor before
beginning any diet or exercise program.

Updated 2/22/2013