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Size matters: portion sizes

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Those of you who visited the States in the 1980s and 1990s will remember the size of portions in restaurants, diners, delis, and food stores. Back then, they were easily double the size of what we had in the UK.

 

Flash forward to today, whether you're eating out or supermarket shopping, you’d be right to think portion sizes have been supersized. 

 

If you are struggling to lose weight or maintain a healthy waistline, sticking to a healthy balanced diet is not the whole story. It could be the size of your portions that is holding you back.

According to recent research led by the British Heart Foundation (BHF), portion sizes have jumped considerably over the last 20 years. The BHF study “Portion Distortion: How Much Are We Really Eating?”, compared portion sizes for own-brand food in our leading supermarkets to 1993 portion sizes, with startling results.

UK portion sizes

Did you know an average plain bagel has jumped 24% in size in two decades? Have you noticed that sliced bread has grown thicker over the years? There's more too - biscuits are up to 17% bigger, an individual chicken pie is up to 40% bigger than in 1993, and a family bag of crisps has grown by a whopping 50%.

According to a recent survey, we Brits are consuming more ready meals than ever before, and portions sizes have jumped too. The average chicken curry frozen ready meal is 50% bigger, while ready meal lasagne has jumped in size by up to 39%. It also doesn’t help that different manufacturers and suppliers vary their portion size recommendations.Larger portion sizes inevitably mean more calories, more carbs and diabetes that can be harder to manage. If you love your bagels and have one every day, you could be eating over 19,500 extra calories a year. If biscuits are your thing, one plain sweetmeal biscuit a day can add an average 3,300 calories to your yearly intake. A ready meal curry once a week weighs in at a staggering 218,400 calories a year – equivalent to a potential weight gain of almost half a stone.  

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In restaurants, portion sizes of fizzy drinks, chips, pizzas, pasta dishes and burgers have grown. Starters are often so large they could be served as a main course, and fast food restaurants are always trying to persuade us to ‘go large’. This even extends to alcohol - wine glasses have got a lot bigger, with one glass sometimes holding as much as a third of a bottle. 

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One leading supermarket’s ‘meals for two’ deal included a main course portion containing 500 calories, and that’s before the wine, side dish and dessert are taken into account. When you know that the Guideline Daily Amounts for women and men are 2,000 and 2,500 calories respectively, with many of us actually needing less, it’s easy to see how we can inadvertently over eat.

Portion distortion

As these changes have happened gradually, many have gone unnoticed. According to the BHF report, when we are presented with larger portions, we eat more and find it harder to keep track of how much we have eaten. Dietary experts say decreasing portion sizes could have a huge impact on the UK’s health, helping us to reverse the current trend towards expanding waistlines. 

It may sound simple, but smaller packaging, plates and bowls could really help. The growing size of plates and bowls, along with how our food is packaged, has distorted the nation’s perspective of what a normal portion size is. 

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As portion sizes are not standardized, it can be difficult to judge the right amount to eat. In 2012, the food manufacturing industry pledged voluntarily to reduce portion sizes, with 36 companies signing up. In Scotland, portion size targets have been published too. But there is still lots of work to be done.

 

Diabetes UK is calling for, amongst other interventions, the food and catering industry to reduce food and drink portion sizes, in order to make it clear to consumers what an appropriate portion size is. Introducing portion controlled packaging could help with this. There are currently no UK or EU regulations regarding portion size, so we also believe the government should look into this.

Portion control: Useful tips

  • Check your portion sizes and don’t assume the ones listed on food packaging are right for you.
  • Think about how what you are eating fits into your overall diet, including your calorie and carb intake.
  • If you like seeing lots of food on your plate, why not pile your plate with vegetables rather than starchy or high-carb foods?
  • Use smaller plates and bowls to make your portions appear larger.
  • Eat slowly and wait a while before having seconds – it can take a while for our brains to register we are fulll.
  • Freeze it! If you have a freezer, freeze your leftovers. If you are cooking things like Bolognese sauce or stew in large quantities, freeze them in the correct portion sizes for future meals.
  • Many people find a portion control plate works well for managing their portions. They can be a quick and simple way to esitimate healthy portion sizes.
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