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Should We Be More Concerned About Portion Size or What We're Eating?

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is the Health Editor at SheKnows. She is a bioethicist and writer specializing in sexual and reproductive health and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. She is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham ...

Why eating healthily is about more than just portion size

One of the most striking parts about eating in a restaurant outside the U.S. is how much smaller the portion size is. Despite that, we're constantly told to eat everything in moderation as a way of getting healthy or losing weight, but is portion size the be-all and end-all when it comes to eating well? According to a new study out of Penn State University, that may not be the case.

Researchers measured how much participants ate when given meals of different portion sizes. Even though approximately one-third of the people in the study had previously been trained in food management strategies, everyone involved ended up eating more as the portions got bigger. For example, when the portion size was increased 75 percent, the average amount of food eaten went up 27 percent.

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But the people who had previous training ended up choosing healthier foods, and despite the increased portion size consumed fewer total calories during the meals.

“The results show that choosing healthy, lower-calorie-dense foods was more effective and more sustainable than just trying to resist large portions of higher calorie options,” Faris Zuraikat, a graduate student, one of the researchers involved in the study, said in a statement. “If you choose high-calorie-dense foods but restrict the amount that you're eating, portions will be too small, and you’re likely to get hungry.”

During the study, participants were fed foods with a variety of calorie densities, including calorically dense foods like garlic bread and foods on the other end of the spectrum like salad. Those with the food-management training did eat more when the portion size was increased, but tended to fill up their plates with the salad or other foods that are low in caloric density, allowing them to eat more, but without detriment to their health.

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“The study supports the idea that eating less of the higher-calorie-dense foods and more of the nutritious, lower-calorie-dense foods can help to manage hunger while consuming fewer calories,” Barbara Rolls, professor and the Helen A. Guthrie Chair of Nutritional Sciences at Penn State, said in a statement. “You still have a full plate, but you're changing the proportions of the different types of foods.”

So, the next time you're filling up your plate at a meal, there's no need to go hungry — just make sure most of your plate consists of foods with low calorie-density.

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