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by Emily Wheeler

The Evolution of Portion Size

Q: What do hamburgers, bagels, soda bottles, salads and pancakes have in common?

A: They’re growing!

Just recently, I ate a restaurant for a friend’s birthday on what happened to be “free cake Tuesday.” With the purchase of an entrée, you received a free slice of cake at the end of your meal! Now, while I’m not complaining at all about free cake, I was shocked to see each “slice of cake” served in a to-go box because the slice literally filled up the whole box and the waiter must have known that we couldn’t eat it all in one sitting. My mind was conflicted between two thoughts: (1) This is an AWESOME slice of cake, and (2) seriously, what kind of place serves slices of cake this large!? After a bit of Google exploration, I was interested to see just how much documentation there is of changing portion size over time! The plates that our parents saw in front of them twenty years ago were extremely different from what we see and have grown to expect today! Check out some of the differences that I discovered; it’s not too difficult to understand why the portion size isn’t the only thing growing in America—the average waistline is following the same trend.

Before you continue, take a moment to check out this portion size quiz to get a visual representation of the change in portion size over time and the difference in calories and required exercise this means for the average American!

Restaurants have been a major contributor to the “portion distortion” that is so prevalent today. Whether it’s a fast food, Mexican, or Italian restaurant, we order food and expect a giant meal to be brought out in front of us. Steaks start at 8 oz. sizes when a single serving size is 4 oz. and a combo at a Mexican restaurant might have 4 enchiladas on one plate plus rice and beans when two enchiladas would actually be enough to fill you up. We want bang for our buck, so we expect huge plates and enough food to bring us to the point of discomfort in order to feel like we’re getting more for our money.

But the crazy portions haven’t just stayed in restaurants—the overgrown restaurant portions have led to distorted expectations at home, as well. When making a meal at home, studies have shown that the amount of spaghetti that the average person serves himself or herself is twice as large as it used to be twenty years ago! Plate and cup sizes have also grown, making “a cup of milk” larger than it was previously as well. Even healthy foods prepared in the controlled environment of our own homes are hard to keep at an appropriate size!

These statistics from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute [1] show just how dramatically the portion sizes of some common foods have changed in the past twenty years:


Then (20 years ago): 3’’ diameter portion; 140 calories

Now: 6’’ diameter portion (think Alpine bagels size); 350 calories

Spaghetti with meatballs:

Then: 1 cup spaghetti, sauce, three small meatballs; 500 calories

Now: 2 cups spaghetti, sauce, three large meatballs; 1,020 calories


Then: One “regular” sized, single-patty cheeseburger; 333 calories

Now: One “regular” sized, single-patty cheeseburger; 590 calories

Blueberry muffin:

Then: 1.5 oz.; 210 calories

Now: 5 oz.; 500 calories (don’t ask me about this math, they’re the ones with the statistics)

Not a big fan of bagels, spaghetti, cheeseburgers, or muffins? How about pizza, coffee, popcorn, and soda? Even salads have doubled in size and calories in the past twenty years. It’s nearly impossible to get a well-portioned meal or even a snack!

What does this mean for you? As evidenced by the statistics above (and common sense), larger portion sizes have more calories, and people are eating more now at each meal that was typical in the past. Controlling portion sizes takes more attention and effort now than ever before, but it is possible. One way to cut down on your portion size is to share huge restaurant entrees with a friend, but the best way to control your portion size is to listen to your body and to learn to simply stop eating when you’re full! So often we eat quickly and to the point of near-misery by the time we leave our favorite restaurants, when in reality, if we would stop eating when we are full and simply take a to-go box to enjoy for a meal later, or the following day, we could avoid overeating and have two meals for the price of one!

Just remember that when a plate of food is placed in front of you, you don’t actually have to eat it all (contrary to what your parents may have told you as a child). You know yourself and you know when you’re full. Certainly, eat until you’re full and happy and don’t have to worry about being hungry again in an hour, but don’t eat until you feel like you may just burst at any moment. Be aware of oversized portions to make smart decisions when it comes to food and exercise regularly and you’ll be ahead of millions of Americans who have fallen for the portion distortion trap. It’s your one body; take care of it!