Beat Portion Distortion

Nutrition // Sabrina Rogers-Anderson // 21 August 2013

Do you often ask for the large soft drink and chips because they only cost a little extra? Or do you reach for the family-size bar of chocolate without so much as a second thought? That’s fine if it’s a very occasional treat and you’re really planning to feed a family with it – but chances are that you’re falling prey to portion distortion like most Aussies.

What is Portion Distortion?

Over the past 20 years, portion sizes have steadily crept up. While a standard soft drink portion used to be 200ml and contain 86 calories, jumbo 600ml bottles containing 258 calories have now taken over vending machines across the country. A king-size Mars bar weighs in at 80g and 365 calories compared to the standard 53g bar that has a more modest 250 calories. It might not seem like a huge difference, but eating the larger bar rather than the standard one once a week can cause you to gain more than 1kg over the course of a year.

The problem with these increasingly large portions is that we’ve now come to believe they’re normal. We mindlessly munch away at our super sized meals without realising how many calories they contain. In a nutshell, we eat whatever is in front of us. According to 12WBT dietitian Georgie Moore, research has shown that consumers will eat up to 1/3 more calories if they’re put on their plate, regardless of how hungry they are.

Even seemingly healthier cuisines such as Japanese and Thai are served up in massive portions. But the reality is that even “healthy” sushi can destroy your diet if you consume several rolls made with white rice and drenched in mayonnaise. And even if the protein is healthy raw fish, it’s in very small proportions compared with the amount of rice you’re consuming.


Portions vs Servings

The first step in beating portion distortion is to understand the difference between a portion and a serving. A portion is the total amount of food you choose to eat in one sitting. For example, you might have a small or large portion of chicken salad for lunch. A serving is a measured amount of food, such as a medium apple or 250ml of milk.

In each portion of food or drink you consume, there are often several servings. According to the Federal Government’s Australian Guide to Healthy Eating, a serving of pasta is one cup of cooked pasta. But there’s a good chance the enormous plate of spaghetti bolognese you order at your local Italian restaurant contains four or five times that amount!

Thankfully, there are several tricks you can use to figure out exactly how many servings and calories are in each portion of food you eat.

Read Nutrition Labels

The nutrition information panel on packaged foods is a great tool to help you keep track of the number of calories you consume – but beware of comparing apples with oranges. At first glance, a packet of wholegrain biscuits might seem to contain fewer calories and less fat than a similar brand. But upon closer inspection, you might find that the serving sizes differ and the first brand is actually higher in calories.

The best way to ensure you make the right choice, is to compare the values listed in the ‘per 100g’ column. You’ll be able to tell at a glance how many calories are found in an identical serving size of each product, as well as their respective salt, sugar, carbohydrate, protein and fat contents. But that doesn’t mean you should eat 100g of biscuits! Once you’ve figured out which product is better for you, measure out a small portion and put the rest away.

Visually Estimate Portion Sizes

At home, it’s easy to calculate exact portion sizes using measuring cups, scales and the information on food packages. But when you’re eating out, it can be hard to determine just how many grams of steak you’re about to devour.

A great trick is to use everyday objects as visual aids to estimate correct portion sizes. For example:

  • 85 grams of meat = the size of your palm and as thick as your pinkie finger
  • 1 cup of pasta = a tennis ball
  • ½ cup of vegetables = a light bulb
  • 1 medium-size piece of fruit = a tennis ball
  • 45g of hard cheese = a matchbox
  • 1 teaspoon of margarine = the tip of your thumb (to the first joint)
  • 2 tablespoons of peanut butter = a ping-pong ball

10 Tips to Keep Your Portion Sizes in Check

In addition to reading food labels and using visual aids, these simple tricks can help you avoid portion distortion:

  1. Load up your plate with steamed vegetables or salad – they’re low in calories and full of fibre to help you feel full. Georgie says half your plate should be filled with veggies or salad, a quarter with protein and a quarter with low-GI carbs.
  2. Downsize your plates. A study conducted at Cornell University in the US found that switching from a 30cm to a 25cm dinner plate led people to eat 22 per cent fewer calories.
  3. Serve meals in the kitchen rather than at the table, and
  4. Put leftovers away immediately so you’re not tempted to have a second helping.
  5. Choose the smallest sizes when ordering takeaway food and drinks, and always say no to “value” and super-size meals.
  6. Have small portions of snacks on hand. You can either buy individually packaged snacks or divide large packages into small portions and place them in separate containers. Don’t eat directly from large bags, boxes or containers.
  7. If you’re dying for a treat like chips or chocolate, reach for the regular size rather than the family or king size – it will most likely be enough to satisfy your craving.
  8. When eating out, use the visual aids mentioned above to help you estimate a reasonable portion size and leave the rest on your plate. You can take the leftovers home and eat them for lunch the next day.
  9. Ask for sauces, dressings and other toppings to be served on the side, and use only a small amount.
  10. Don’t be fooled by manufacturers’ descriptions. A “low-carb” product might be high in fat or a “low-fat” one might have a lot of sugar. And just because a product is made with “natural” sugar doesn’t make it any better for you! “Light” can refer to the colour or taste – it doesn’t necessarily have to do with the fat or energy content. And “organic” or “vitamin” tell you nothing about the fat or sugar content, both of which could be high.



Meet the Author, Sabrina Rogers-Anderson

Sabrina Rogers-Anderson has been writing about fitness, nutrition and health for over 10 years. Her work has been published in numerous magazines and websites in Australia and overseas, including Good Health, Australian Women's Weekly, Men's Fitness and Read author's full story here


  1. Katja Reply

    Would also love a tip about food that is served on an aeroplane….really worried about upcoming trip to Europe….

    1. Danielle Warby Reply

      That’s a great idea Katja! I’ll chat to our dieticians and get back to you.

    2. Lisa Donaldson Reply

      Hi Katja,

      Long haul flights can be tricky, especially when watching your weight! It’s a long, sedentary journey and you have very little control over what you can eat… I was once served a spicy curry for breakfast on route to Abu Dhabi! If you are trying to lose weight, my best suggestion is to stick with the meals and minimise the snacks. Focus on finishing the vegetables/salad/fruit component (fibre and low calorie) and eat the serve of protein to keep you fuller for longer. If snacks come around regularly and you are not hungry, have a drink instead. Sometimes a cup of tea with some milk (protein) is enough to keep the hunger in check. Fruit, yoghurt or nuts are often your best choices for snacks. Steer clear of alcohol when flying and sip water to remain hydrated throughout. Have an AMAZING trip!

      12WBT Support Crew

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