A Hand-y Way to Measure Portions August 17, 2009
Topics: Nutrition

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Everybody has heard about 'portion distortion' and many of us in Central Texas practice it every time we go by the fast food joint and order our meals to be 'supersized,' 'upsized,' or any other adjective that you can assume means too much food. For example, a standard hamburger in the 1960s was about the same size as a kid's burger today. And it's not just fast food that's a challenge. Restaurants typically serve enough food for two meals and we often serve ourselves more food than we really need because our judgment about what is adequate has been, well, distorted.

"To really control portion sizes, you need to measure everything you eat," says Seton Outpatient Nutrition Services Senior Clinical Dietitian Wendy Morgan, RD, LD. "Of course, that's not very practical anywhere except in your own kitchen. Measuring your food at home for awhile can help you reset your visual imaging about how much food is appropriate. But even when you are not a home, you have a handy tool with you that can help you make good choices and it's attached at the end of your arm - your own hand."

"Using your hand as a measurement tool gives useful approximations. Bigger people have bigger hands, so their estimates will include more food than those of smaller individuals. However, the differences will be proportional, so the person doing the measuring will be getting the right amount of food for him- or herself."

The Difference Between Portions & Servings

"Serving size describes how much experts recommend you eat. Standard serving sizes have been determined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and are required to be listed on the Nutrition Fact label on food sold in this country. Portion size is how much you choose to eat." says Wendy.

Many of us regularly overeat certain types of food. It's easy to eat more than a recommended serving of corn chips (about 32) or ice cream (1/2 cup). But may people eat too much of good foods, such as whole grain cereals. If a recommended serving size of whole grain cereal is 1/2 cup and you are eating a whole cup, you are getting too much. Check the box's Nutrition Fact label to find out.

Hand-y Measurements

"The best way to retrain your eye to estimate how much food makes up a portion is to measure your food. A good measuring cup, set of measuring spoons and a small kitchen scale are a dieter's best friends," says Wendy. "But it's not practical to carry that much equipment when you go out to dinner or just pick up lunch in the cafeteria where you work. Count on it, even cafeterias will be serving you too much food because everybody is looking for a bargain," says Wendy.

Most Americans are always looking for value in consumer goods, and food is no different. To appeal to our sense of getting more for our money, food establishments quickly learned that once the overhead costs of doing business are covered, the cost of a little extra food makes people happy and loyal customers.

"We all know what we should do in restaurants - either share your meal with someone or pack half of it up to take home. But sometimes, that's just not a practical solution and we are left to guess how much we actually should eat in a quiet, subtle way. Hopefully, measuring your food at home has given you better visual judgment. But you always have your hand with you to help you estimate."

Wendy offers these examples:

  • The food on your plate should take up no more space than your spread hand.
  • A clenched fist is the same size as a serving of fruit.
  • A cupped hand holds a serving of cereal or grains.
  • Two cupped hands hold a serving of leafy salad greens.
  • The palm is about the same as a serving of meat.
  • Your thumb is about the same as an ounce of cheese.
  • The tip of your thumb is about the same as one tablespoon.
  • Your fingertip is about the same as one teaspoon.

For More Information

Learn more about recommended food consumption at the USDA's MyPyramid. The USDA also put together a nifty chart of visual cues to help estimate portion sizes. The Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health Portion Distortion has put together two interesting and informative quizzes to test your knowledge of portion distortion. Other useful links include Meals Matter, Food Reflections and Portion Distortion.

Wendy Morgan, RD, LD
Senior Clinical Dietitian
Seton Outpatient Nutrition Services

Wendy is a clinical dietitian and accepts outpatient nutrition counseling referrals from physicians. Contact her at (512) 324-1000, x18014 for an appointment.

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