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Portion control: Are you eating too much?

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Portion distortion

Some experts say how much you eat can be more important than what you eat. Here's what you need to know about portion control.

Portion Control

What is portion distortion?

Stacy Kopecky defines her old eating habits in two words -- portion distortion.

"I was probably eating two to three times what I should have been eating," Kopecky says. "Even when I was eating healthy things, I was still eating too much."

In 1999, Kopecky joined a popular weight loss program for the fifth time in her life. She knew the drill, but the hardest part of the plan was to pay attention to serving sizes.

"When I first sat down to a meal and saw my serving size, I thought 'Who would eat this?'" Kopecky says. "I used to look for the restaurant who would give you the most for your money. When I go out to eat now, I'm always shocked at the portion sizes they give you."

Kopecky has lost 63 pounds and is now a weight loss leader for her weight loss program in Wisconsin. When individuals in her group lose weight, Kopecky says 80 percent of the time they attribute their success to smaller portion sizes.

The portion doctor weighs in

Carol Francis-Jubert is a registered dietitian in Florida and the president of www.portiondoctor.com. She has been a dietitian since 1981 and started Portion Doctor in 2002. She says her philosophy is based on the old Chinese proverb, which states, "Tell me, I'll forget. Show me, I may remember. But involve me and I'll understand."

"As a registered dietician, we always tell patients what to eat and how much to eat, but doing it may be difficult," Francis-Jubert says. "I wanted to be more effective in getting nutrition messages across to my clients."

Francis-Jubert created plates, bowls and glasses with nutrition information printed directly on the surface to make it easy for people to control portions sizes. She says knowing what to eat is easy, but the crucial part is knowing how much to eat.

An extra serving here and there might not seem like much, but Francis-Jubert says it adds up quick.

"Large portions provide more calories," she says. "A few 100 less calories each day could lead to weight loss or prevent weight gain each year," she says.

Increased portion sizes can be found everywhere. For example, Francis-Jubert says several marketplace foods are exceeding the federal guidelines. On average, she says, cooked pasta exceeds a standard serving size by 480 percent, muffins by 333 percent, steaks by 224 percent and bagels by 195 percent. Wow!

Knowing what's important

Lisa Young is a nutritionist and a professor at New York University who has been researching portion sizes for the past 15 years. Her book, The Portion Teller: Smartsize Your Way to Permanent Weight Loss, was published in May 2005.

"People think that what they eat is more important than how much they eat," Young says. "It's not true."

She says 78 percent of people who are on a diet think the most important thing they need to do is watch what they eat. Young says she wants consumers to realize that quantity is a bigger concern.

"There's all these books on low-carb, low-fat dieting, but nothing about portion sizes. At the end of the day that's what it's all about," Young says. "How much you eat is more important than what you eat."

While there are various professional opinions regarding various diets and the consumption of various types of foods, many experts can agree on the fact that portion sizes, especially in restaurants, have grown exponentially over recent years.

Packaging also contributes to misconceptions about serving sizes. Young says research shows Americans are eating more, in part, because of bigger packaging. Experts warn consumers to read labels. For example, a 20-ounce bottle of soda, a bag of microwave popcorn and a can of soup all contain 2.5 servings. In a bag of tortilla chips, the recommended serving size is about 14 chips, and a serving of cereal is roughly 1 cup.

A lifelong commitment to portion control

Kopecky admits it was hard to adjust to smaller portions, but now, it's second nature. When she goes to a restaurant, she automatically cuts the serving size in half, and she no longer has to remind herself that a serving of meat is about the size of a deck of cards. Kopecky says it's easy to get caught in portion distortion, but she's proof that bad habits can be broken.

"It's kind of the American way that more is better, but it's not always," Kopecky says. "A big part for me is watching my portion sizes and asking myself how much do I really need to eat?"

Do you know the true definition of a serving size?

  • Three ounces of cooked meat, fish or poultry is the size of a deck of cards
  • Two tablespoons of peanut butter is the size of a golf ball
  • A medium piece of fruit looks like a baseball
  • A medium bagel is the size of a hockey puck
  • One ounce of cheese is the size of four dice
  • A small baked potato is the size of a computer mouse
  • The serving size for raw vegetables, yogurt and fruit is one cup -- which will fit into an average woman's hand.
  • One cup of pasta is the size of a tennis ball

Courtesy of the American Dietetic Association

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