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What is Portion Distortion?

By Felicia Dye
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) defines a portion as “the amount of food that you choose to eat for a meal or snack.” Portion distortion is a term used to refer to situations where people tend to regard excessive portions as normal amounts. These situations are believed to contribute to unhealthy eating habits that may lead to obesity.

Health professionals, such as those at the NHLBI, believe portion distortion results, in large part, from the influence of restaurant dining. Many people are value seekers and most businesses are profit seekers. When these two goals meet in a food service setting, the result is customers looking for bargains and restaurants offering excessive portions to make people believe they are getting those bargains.

The Check Your Health organization notes that in 1955 a McDonald's soda was 7 fluid ounces (207 ml). By 2002, McDonald's was serving sodas as large as 42 fluid ounces (1.25 l). The organization further noted that in many instances, food served in commercial settings is more than three times larger than the portions recommended by the United States Drug Administration (USDA).

The problem, according the NHLBI, is that this behavior often leads people to develop habits of serving and consuming excessive portions at home. Food suppliers in grocery stores are also following the trend of overfeeding people. As a result, foods that are already portioned tend to be much larger than they once were, exposing people to more instances of harmful portion distortion.

These habits are harmful because they commonly lead to overeating. For example, if a person normally eats two hot dogs, she is likely to still eat two hot dogs if the supplier increases their size and labels them “jumbo.” This problem is commonly found with pre-portioned items that are marked “individual.”

Some items marketed as individual portions actually contain enough food for more than one person. However, most people do not take the time to review the nutritional label for the number of servings. Many people finish all the contents of an individual sized package even when it displays a label with advertisements such as “now with 25% more.”

The adverse effects of portion distortion are increased health problems and climbing obesity. Heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis are some examples of health conditions believed to be associated with unhealthy eating. Furthermore, the obesity connected with portion distortion is not only affecting adults, but it is also jeopardizing the health of an increasing number of children.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By burcinc — On Apr 13, 2011

I think that another reason our portion sizes are bigger (even at home) is because in our mind, the portions look bigger. That's why I use visuals to estimate how much of each food we should be eating. I began to do this thanks to my son, I wanted to make sure that he was having a balanced and healthy diet growing up.

Visuals make it easier to know how much is too much. For example, your steak should be the size of a deck of cards. Cheese should be the size of a match box. Pasta should be as much as a tennis ball and peanut butter, a ping pong ball.

There are many such examples of visuals that dietitians and teachers use for serving sizes. It's a really good method, try it!

By ysmina — On Apr 13, 2011

Yes, our portions are bigger, but only the portions of fast food and junk food we eat! I doubt that Americans eat anything close to the standard portion of fruits and vegetables per day.

I think the worst part is that instead of changing the way we live to balance out these bigger portions, we adapt everything else to it. What I mean is that if we are eating a bigger portion of french fries or having more soda than regular size, we should be more active that day to burn those extra calories. But we don't. Instead we have car companies manufacture larger cup holders so that we can fit our huge soda cups in them!

I think the best way to control portions at restaurants is to order kids meals. I'm pretty sure that the kids meal portions are the same size as adult portions 30 or 40 years ago.

Anyone have any other tips for portion control at restaurants?

By discographer — On Apr 11, 2011

I had to learn portion control as I was following a weight loss program. My dietitian said that we should only be eating a handful of food at a time.

Our stomach is the size of our two fists put side to side. But since we eat way too much than we should be, our stomach expands and becomes much larger.

It was so hard to control my portions in the beginning of my diet because I was used to having so much food. I really had to learn to be full with less food. This meant using smaller plates and bowls, chewing more slowly and learning to use different sensory organs to get the most out of the eating experience.

Another great way to make sure your portions are not distorted is to have water with your meals. If you have just one handful of food at a meal, you are filling up one third of your stomach. Water is supposed to fill another one third. Finally, the remaining space in the stomach should be left for gas from the food.

I have learned to eat this way, control my portions and leave the dining table not feeling full. It's a challenge, but you will be much healthier this way. It helps to loose weight and it also eliminates any digestive problems. I've learned that what you eat is important, but how much of it you eat is also important.

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