Good for Your Wallet and Your Health.
When it comes to food, there are very few of us who can say that our portion sizes are currently too small (except maybe when it comes to vegetables…). In fact, when we’re eating out, our average portion sizes have increased 2-3 times or more from where they were 20 yearsago1. This, in turn, has played a big part in normalizing what we think of as a normal portion, whether we’re eating at home or eating out. So, for most of us, when it comes to saving money while eating healthier, reducing our portion size is one of the easiest and healthiest things that we can do.
Portion Size vs. Serving Size
According to the National Institutes of Health, a portion is the amount of food that we choose to eat for a meal or snack2. In other words, it’s completely up to us how big or small our portion sizes are.
Portions often get confused with serving sizes. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that a serving is a standardized or measured amount of food3. It may be stated in tablespoons, ounces or cups but is a standard amount that can easily be measured.
Take for instance a 16-ounce bag of chips. I could easily eat half the bag in one sitting on a really stressful day. In that case, half the bag or 8 ounces would be my portion size. On the other hand, the bag’s nutrition label says that there are about 16 servings in the bag or 1 ounce or about 11 chips per serving. So, if I eat half the bag, I’ve eaten 8 servings and an outrageous number of chips. Hmmm….
As another example, if I have an 8-ounce box of pasta, and I fix half the box as one serving, I’ve had a 4-ounce portion of pasta. If you look at this amount compared to what you get for a dinner serving in many restaurants, it’s about the same. The catch though is that the nutrition label on my box of pasta tells me that 2 ounces is a serving size, so I now have to double all of the values listed. Ouch!
This is where the National Institutes of Health’s idea of “portion distortion1” comes in. If you want an interesting look at how portion sizes have increased over the past 20 years, be sure and check out their interactive quizzes on that here.
Benefits of Reducing Portion Size
Given the increase in the size of portions over the years, when we talk about reducing them, we’re not talking about unhealthy food restriction. We’re talking about getting back to a healthier way of looking at the amount of food we eat. In general, we simply do not need as much food as many of us are currently consuming. Two of the most significant benefits to reducing our portion sizes come in terms of saving our health and our money.
Regularly eating portions that are larger than what our bodies need takes its toll on our health over time. That’s due in large part because consuming more calories than we burn causes the excess calories to be stored as fat. In turn, too much body fat may cause us to become overweight or obese4. In addition, too many simple carbs and too much sugar can wreak havoc on our blood sugar levels, also resulting in many health problems5. Here are just some of the risks associated with being overweight, obese or simply eating more food than we need.
- Eating too much food requires your organs to work harder4.
- Type 2 diabetes6
- High blood pressure6
- Heart disease and strokes6
- Certain types of cancer6
- Fatty liver disease6
While reducing portion size won’t prevent all of these issues, it will go a long way toward making sure that we’re not needlessly overloading our bodies with food it really doesn’t need or want. It will also enable us to eat a reasonable amount of something that’s not-so-healthy if that’s what we want while at the same time leaving plenty of room for healthy food.
Money saving benefits
This one is fairly straightforward. If we eat less, our food bill isn’t as high. Again, the idea here isn’t to starve ourselves by any means. That is absolutely not the point. But, if we get back to eating reasonable amounts of food, we can stretch our food budget even further or invest in healthy foods that we might have otherwise thought were too expensive.
Take my bag of chips. What would have been two servings on a couple of really tough days or even 4-5 servings in amounts that many of us would regularly eat, could actually be up to 16 servings. That means that instead of going through a bag of chips a week, one bag may last two weeks.
The same holds true with my pasta. If you go by the serving size listed on the box, instead of needing two boxes to feed four people, you only need one box to feed four. That’s half the cost in both cases.
How to Limit Portion Size
The concept of reducing portion sizes is fairly easy. Putting it into practice is where things can get more challenging. Here are some ideas to help get you started.
- Learn how much of the healthiest foods to eat at different calorie levels by following the NIH Guidelines.
- Weigh and/or measure your food at least in the beginning until you learn what an appropriate portion looks like.
- Learn what a reasonable serving size looks like without measuring cups or a scale by following the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s Serving Size Card.
- Drink water about an hour to half hour before you eat. Water is something that most of us need more of, and it will make you feel more full while you’re eating.
- Don’t eat from the bag. Set out a serving size or a serving and a half if that seems like a more reasonable amount and put the bag away.
- Eat healthy snacks at regular intervals throughout the day so that you’re not ravenous when you sit down for a meal.
- Go by the nutrition labels on packages.
- If you’re making a recipe from a blog, follow the recommended serving sizes that are usually included. Most blog recipe creators are home cooks. You can normally rely on them to include very reasonable serving sizes as well as the associated nutrition information.
Bottom Line on Reducing Portion Size
The bottom line on reducing portion size is that we’re not talking about depravation here. We’re talking about eating more intentionally and intuitively as to what your body needs to nourish it. That’s opposed to what your emotions may be making you think they want as well as what may just be habit or conditioned eating. When it comes to portion size, you’re in the driver’s seat, and you’re the one in control. Let that be empowering for you – whatever you decide to eat.
- National Institutes of Health. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/wecan/eat-right/portion-distortion.htm
- National Institutes of Health. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/wecan/eat-right/distortion.htm
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Eat Right. Serving Size vs Portion Size is There a Difference. https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/nutrition-facts-and-food-labels/serving-size-vs-portion-size-is-there-a-difference
- The University of Texas. MD Anderson Cancer Center. What Happens When You Overeat? https://www.mdanderson.org/publications/focused-on-health/What-happens-when-you-overeat.h23Z1592202.html
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Carbohydrates and Blood Sugar. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/carbohydrates-and-blood-sugar/
- National Institutes of Health. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Health Risks of Being Overweight. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/weight-management/health-risks-overweight