Portion distortion

In the last 40 years, food portions have grown. What used to be a “normal-sized” portion now wouldn’t fill most of us up.

Quantities of food we’re served in restaurants today are often huge — a 9-inch bowl piled high with pasta and meat or a chicken-fried steak encompassing an entire 12-inch platter.

These super-sized food items seem normal to us now in a phenomenon termed portion distortion, by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) in their Obesity Education Initiative (OEI) slide sets, says Linda Stockman, MS, RD, LD, CDE, Registered Dietitian, Diabetes Educator and Weight Management Program coach.

“Larger portions have translated into larger people.”

Along with the increased portion size comes increased calorie content.

Portion Distortion – Then and Now

  • In 1970 a soda was usually 6.5 ounces and 85 calories. Today it’s 20 ounces and 250 calories. That’s a calorie count of a small meal in a cup, notes Ms. Stockman.
  • In 1970, a cheeseburger was the size of your palm. Today it’s the size of your whole hand. With double or triple patties. A cheeseburger in 1970 had around 330 calories; today’s cheeseburgers average 590 calories.
  • In 1970, a serving of pasta was a half-plate of spaghetti with three small meatballs, containing around 500 calories; today it’s a whole plate, averaging 1025 calories.

Find out more about portion distortion.

Portion Distortion and the Obesity Rate

In 1970 the obesity rate was much lower. As you super-size your food, you may end up super-sizing yourself.


“Larger portions have translated into larger people,” says Ms. Stockman. According to the National Institutes of Health, two-thirds of Americans are now either overweight or obese.

Overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control, is having a body mass index (BMI) between 25 and 29.9; obese is a BMI of 30 or higher. Your BMI is your weight in kilograms (kg) divided by your height in meters squared (m2).

Why Have Portions Become Larger Over Time?

According to the Journal of Nutrition, portion sizes are increasing because of the:

  • Increased frequency of eating out
  • Increased availability of restaurants
  • Increased wealth of many households
  • Reduced cost of food production due to agricultural subsidies
  • Consumer demand for economic value (“getting a good deal”)
  • Restaurant marketing strategies (offering a good deal)

Ms. Stockman says, “I’m hoping as restaurants start to post calories for menu items, this will increase demand for smaller portions and foods prepared with more fat-reduced ingredients.”

The Solution to Portion Distortion

The solution won’t be easy, Ms. Stockman says, because we’ve grown accustomed to seeing and eating large portions.

For example, when McDonald’s Big Mac was introduced in 1968, it was considered huge. Today, a Big Mac may appear meager compared to many burger options.

Ms. Stockman suggests checking out the U.S. Department of Agriculture for help with portion sizes.

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Portion distortion