Skip to content

    Portion Size: The New Abnormal

    By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD

    Burger and Fries

    Portions have steadily increased over the last several decades, both in restaurants and at home. While the general population is aware of this, most don’t realize how this affects what we see as “normal.”

    Let’s take a step back and look how much things have changed — and why it matters.

    How this looks

    Thanks to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), we now have a good visual for how this new abnormal plays out. According to their website, the average restaurant meal is four times larger than it was in the 1950′s.

    For example, a hamburger in the 50′s was 3.9 ounces, French fries 2.4 ounces, and soda 7 ounces. Today those numbers have jumped to 12 ounces (hamburger), 6.7 ounces (fries) and 42 ounces (soda).

    And according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood website, a bagel has increased from a 3-inch diameter (130 calories) to 6 inches (350 calories) while a blueberry muffin has more than tripled in size from 1.5 ounces (210 calories) to 5 ounces (500 calories).

    These are BIG changes!

    How it affects eating

    According to a 2009 review in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, people eat at least 30% more with larger portions. Frequent exposure to these bigger-than-life portions affects people’s perception as well, leading consumers to see them as an appropriate size, something health professionals call “portion distortion.”

    Research done by Barbara Rolls shows that while people eat more with larger portions, they don’t report increased levels of satisfaction or fullness.

    Question the need for large portions

    I think everyone needs to think about how portions affect intake — and the future intake of their children. Research shows that a majority of parents encourage their young children to eat more at meals and snacks. As children age and enter the world of huge portions, this can have negative consequences.

    And adults who eat until their plate is finished can rethink this strategy. A 2007 study in Obesity found that normal-weight individuals were more likely to use internal cues such as fullness to stop eating, while those at higher weights relied more on external cues.

    Because feelings of satisfaction are similar, people can also question this idea that large portions provide extra value for the money. This showcases how different food is from other products we buy.

    Take the quiz

    Take the CDC quiz , to see just how much portions have changed through the years. I believe if more people questioned the value of large portions, split entrees at restaurants, and ordered the smallest servings, we would see some change in what (and how much) is offered.

    What do you think about the portions you see while dining out? Does it affect how much you eat?

    Photo: Photodisc

    The opinions expressed in WebMD Second Opinion are solely those of the User, who may or may not have medical or scientific training. These opinions do not represent the opinions of WebMD. Second Opinion are... Expand


    Subscribe to free WebMD newsletters.

    • WebMD Daily

      WebMD Daily

      Subscribe to the WebMD Daily, and you'll get today's top health news and trending topics, and the latest and best information from WebMD.

    • Men's Health

      Men's Health

      Subscribe to the Men's Health newsletter for the latest on disease prevention, fitness, sex, nutrition, and more from WebMD.

    • Women's Health

      Women's Health

      Subscribe to the Women's Health newsletter for the latest on disease prevention, fitness, sex, diet, anti-aging, and more from WebMD.

    By clicking Submit, I agree to the WebMD Terms & Conditions & Privacy Policy and understand that I may opt out of WebMD subscriptions at any time.

    URAC: Accredited Health Web Site TRUSTe online privacy certification HONcode Seal AdChoices