Portion Distortion

April 4, 2013
Do you know what a normal portion of food looks like? If it fits on a plate, is that a portion? How many true portions are in the meals they serve in restaurants? We are accustomed to thinking of large platters as to what a normal, healthy, serving size should be. We are used to the food contained in a restaurant portion as being the norm.

In 1957, a hamburger weighed one ounce and had 206 calories. Today, that same hamburger weighs six ounces and packs over 600 calories. Now that is portion distortion!

Typical restaurant entrees are often so large that they contain calories and fat in amounts appropriate for two people (or even more!). The problem is, we've become so accustomed to being served impressive, plate filling meals that we’ve lost sight of what healthy portions should look like. Restaurants, knowing that we equate quantity with value, aren't about to serve smaller, healthier portions...unless we ask. If you want something smaller...ask! Tell your food server that you want a smaller version of the meal they’re offering.

So, if the food on the plate isn't a true portion, what does a serving size look like?  Without pulling out your food scale, here are some ways to be in the portion size know:

Protein (3 ounces of meat, fish, and poultry) = Deck of playing cards
Peanut butter (2 Tbsp.) = Ping pong ball
Vegetables (1 cup of salad greens) = baseball

Fruit (1/2 cup of fresh fruit) = ½ of a baseball
Medium piece of fruit = baseball
Dairy and cheese (1-1/2 ounce cheese) = 4 stacked dice
Fats (1 teaspoon margarine or spreads) = 1 dice
Grains (1/2 cup of cooked rice, pasta or potato) = ½ baseball

Here are some other strategies to keep restaurant portions in check:

1.  On your way to being seated, check out what other customers are eating. You’ll get a sense of how the restaurant sizes its meals.

2. Order your main meal from the appetizer side of the menu instead of the full entree side.

3.  Request that the kitchen split your meal in half and wrap half in a to-go box before they even serve you. You can enjoy a smaller portion without being tempted to eat more than you should.  And you can bring the leftover half home for the next day’s meal.

4.  Share an entree with a friend. (If there are four of you, share two entrees, etc.)

5.  Ask for the bread and butter basket to be kept in the kitchen. Alternatively, ask for it to be placed at another location on the table other than by you.

6.  Review the restaurant’s menu online before you pull into the parking lot. By planning ahead in this way, you’ll know what you want to eat and you won’t have to look at the menu. You won’t be tempted to order unhealthy portions and foods because you were proactive in checking out the menu and have therefore practiced mindful eating even before you have ordered.

7.  When selecting your meal, search only the areas of the menu with healthy choices —fish, chicken, beef, vegetable dishes.

8.  Ask for what you want. Request items to be prepared without rich sauces or served on the side.

Many times when we eat at a restaurant, we leave our healthy habits at home. Rather than consider eating out as a treat or reason to indulge, look for healthy choices. Remember that when you leave the restaurant, the choices you made, healthy or unhealthy, leave with you.

When dining out with family and friends, don’t leave your resolve at the door. Consider eating at a restaurant as a treat that you don’t have to cook or clean after the meal, and it allows you to enjoy the company of others. Focus on the dining experience. Being out to eat is truly not only about the food...it is also about family and friends.

cathy wilson


Cathy Wilson, PCC, BCC, had RNY surgery in 2001 and lost 147 pounds. Cathy is a regular contributor to the OH Blog and authored the "Mind Matters" column in ObesityHelp Magazine. Cathy is a licensed pilot and loves flying. She is a member of the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS) and the Obesity Action Coalition (OAC).

Read more articles by Cathy!