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Don’t let big portions derail diet efforts

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As a dietitian working with clients on weight management, portion size is a topic of discussion.

In managing body weight, choosing a healthy variety of lower calorie foods is not the only guideline. Patients who are successful in losing weight realize amounts of foods they eat can make the difference.

The portions people eat and the recommended serving sizes are not always the same.

Let’s define some terms. A portion is how much you choose to eat at one time. A serving size is the amount of food listed on a product’s food label.

Take a look at snack food choices. Consider a bag of microwave popcorn.

One popular product food label says that there are 2½ servings of popcorn in a package and that one serving provides 180 calories. If my portion of popcorn is to eat the whole bag in one setting, I have now consumed 450 calories. In another example, a serving size of a fruit and nut trail mix is three tablespoons, or 1 ounce, for 145 calories. If my portion is ½ cup, I have 386 calories.

Research of portion sizes over the past 20 years shows Americans are increasing portions dramatically. For example, 20 years ago a muffin weighed 1½ ounces and provided 210 calories. I found a 6-ounce muffin that had 600 calories. When eating out, portions have changed as well. Twenty years ago a cheeseburger had 330 calories. Now a Burger King double meat Whopper with cheese and mayonnaise is 990 calories.

To learn more about the increases in portion size, you can take a fun quiz at the government Portion Distortion site:

When we eat bigger portions, calorie intake goes up. A recent Cochrane report reviewed multiple portion size studies to assess this impact. The authors concluded that if American adults were to consistently change from the larger-sized portions, packages and plates to the smaller versions across the entire day, they could reduce their average daily calories by 22 percent to 29 percent – a savings of up to 527 calories!

Controlling portions can make the difference in achieving weight loss. Start by trimming 100 or more calories here and there throughout the day.

Here are some suggestions to get you started in monitoring portions:

• Get out your measuring cups and spoons. Get a feel for your portion size by using them during the day. How much cereal is in the bowl in the morning? How many tablespoons of peanut butter are on your sandwich at lunch? How many cups were in the serving spoon of mashed potatoes at dinner?

• Choose to serve foods in smaller plates and bowls. A dinner of 3 ounces baked chicken, ¾ cup rice, and ¾ cup green beans looks filling when served on a salad plate. Add a green salad with low-fat dressing in a small bowl to complement the meal. Later on if you get hungry, serve some sliced strawberries in a custard cup with a dollop of vanilla yogurt. These smaller servings are much more inviting in a smaller dish.

• Portion snack foods into appropriate amounts. Open a big bag of pretzels, put your healthy portion onto a napkin or in a small dish. Then, put the big package away for another time.

• Savor those smaller portions. Meals and snacks are more satisfying when the food is chewed well, is eaten at a slow pace and enjoyed in a relaxed setting.

• Make second portions harder to get. Serve your dinner plate at the stove, then take it to the table to eat. This cuts down on the chances of getting an extra serving. Then, cover and store the leftovers promptly to prevent going back later.

• Eat your meals in courses. Start with a small green salad or broth-based vegetable soup and then move on to the more calorie-dense foods.

• When you eat out, solve the problem of getting too much food by splitting the entrée with a friend. Order a small side salad if necessary to complement the meal. Or, ask for a to-go box as soon as the food arrives in order to save half of the meal for a later meal.

Bottom line, portion sizes matter. Don’t let big portions be the pitfall in why you can’t manage your weight. Simple tips can be practiced all of the time, even during the holidays, to put a check on calorie consumption.

Sara Perovich is a registered dietitian nutritionist working as a clinical dietitian and nutrition educator in the Albuquerque area. She is a member of the New Mexico Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.