Whose portion, yours or mine?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

May 2007

What does a "portion" or "serving" of steak mean to you? Or potatoes, or green beans or pizza? If you feel a bit confused since reading the last diet book or magazine article about portion sizes you have lots of company. About the size of 2 tennis balls, referring to pasta or rice is OK if you are the standard 150-pound man but not if you're a 95-pound female gymnast or a 240-pound linebacker. It seems to me that each of them requires a different amount — in other words, a different portion size.

A small consolation: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) don't always agree on how much constitutes a serving size either. They both describe servings or portions in ounces and cups but how much help is that on a day-to-day basis? Most of us couldn't begin to estimate how many ounces there are in a helping of asparagus or a baked potato without a scale.

We all know that portion sizes have been increasing for more than a generation and so has the GNW (Gross National Weight) of our country. The 2-ounce bran muffin of 1970 has become the 6-ouncer of today. The original Hershey bar weighed 0.6 ounces; today's versions range from 1.6 ounces to the half-pound Giant.

If a restaurant follows the USDA guidelines, a steak entree should weigh 2 to 3 ounces. At a family restaurant it's likely to weigh half a pound; at a steak house it could be anywhere from 12 ounces to twice that much — a pound and a half.

Large portions at home or at restaurants are so common that consumers no longer recognize what is appropriate. Nutrition scientists found that out years ago. Their research subjects underestimated calories by 50 percent or more. That matters a lot when you realize that taking in only 100 extra calories a day means a weight gain of 10 pounds a year. Is it a coincidence that by actual measurement the average person consumed about 100 calories more per day in the 90s than he or she did in the 70s and that the rate of obesity tripled during the same period?

There are two keys to maintaining a healthy weight: control portion sizes and stick to foods that fill you up. The latter include vegetables of all types, not baked goods and sweets.

If a serving of meat is about the size of your palm, not counting the fingers, it will be an appropriate size for you whether you're five-foot-two or six-foot-two. For cooked vegetables, rice and pasta a serving is the size of your fist; leafy salads are worth two fists. Three meals like that, bolstered by between-meal snacks of fruit or nuts, will keep both hunger pangs and weight down.

What about drinks? Consider that the original Coca-Cola came in a 6.5-ounce bottle. Supermarkets sell soft drinks in 12-ounce cans; fast-food places start at about 16 ounces up to 64 ounces. Those enormous sizes come with no protein, no vitamins and little or no calcium.

If all food portions came in smaller packages, Americans would, too.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.