Portion Size, Then and Now

Spotted this article originally on Rense, Portion Size, Then and Now. This give a whole new meaning to “Supersize me”.

Another thought – if we weren’t sustainable back then, how could be possibly achieve sustainability now, while consuming nearly twice to three times as much (per person)?

Portion Size, Then and Now By: Liz Monte

Over the past few decades, portion sizes of everything from muffins to sandwiches have grown considerably. Unfortunately, America’s waistbands have reacted accordingly. In the 1970s, around 47 percent of Americans were overweight or obese; now 66 percent of us are. In addition, the number of just obese people has doubled, from 15 percent of our population to 30 percent.While increased sizes haven’t been the sole contributor to our obesity epidemic, large quantities of cheap food have distorted our perceptions of what a typical meal is supposed to look like. These portion comparisons, adapted from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s (NHLBI) Portion Distortion Quiz, give a visual representation of what sizes used to be compared to what they are today.

Two Slices of Pizza

Twenty years ago 500 calories
Today 850 calories

Those extra 350 calories, if eaten a two times a month, would put on two extra pounds a year, or forty pounds in the next two decades.

Cup of Coffee

Twenty years ago Coffee with milk and sugar 45 calories
Today Grande caf’ mocha with whip, 2% milk 8 ounces 16 ounces 330 calories

When our parents ordered a coffee two decades ago, they weren’t given as many size options””a standard cup of joe was eight ounces, the size of a small coffee cup. Nowadays, most of us feel like we don’t get our money’s worth unless the cup is at least twelve ounces; it’s not unusual to see thirty-two ounce coffee cups, four times the size they used to be. When made into a mocha, the morning coffee has as many calories as a full meal.

Movie Popcorn

Twenty Years Ago 5 cups 270 calories
Today Tub 630 calories

We don’t have to eat those extra 360 calories in the tub of popcorn, but that’s easier said than (not) done. Studies indicate that when given food in larger containers, people will consume more. In a 1996 Cornell University study, people in a movie theater ate from either medium (120g) or large (240g) buckets of popcorn, then divided into two groups based on whether they liked the taste of the popcorn. The results: people with the large size ate more than those with the medium size, regardless of how participants rated the taste of the popcorn.


Twenty Years Ago 3-inch diameter 140 calories
Today Noah’s Plain Bagel 5-6-inch diameter 350 calories

Because portions are now so large, it’s hard to understand what a “serving size” is supposed to be. Today’s bagel counts for three servings of bread, but many of us would consider it one serving. Larger sizes at restaurants have also contributed to larger sizes when eating at home. A study comparing eating habits today with twenty years ago found that participants poured themselves about 20 percent more cornflakes and 30 percent more milk than twenty years ago.


Twenty years ago 333 calories
Today 590 calories

According to a 2007 paper published in the Journal of Public Health Policy, portion sizes offered by fast food chains are two to five times larger than when first introduced. When McDonald’s first started in 1955, its only hamburger weighed around 1.6 ounces; now, the largest hamburger patty weighs 8 ounces, an increase of 500 percent. And while a Big Mac used to be considered big, it’s on the smaller side of many burger options. At Burger King, you can get the Triple Whopper; at Ruby Tuesday’s there’s the Colossal Burger; and Carl’s Junior has the Western Bacon Six Dollar Burger.


Original 8-ounce bottle 97 calories

12 ounce can 145 calories

20-ounce bottle 242 calories

While the 12-ounce can used to be the most common soda option, many stores now carry only the 20-ounce plastic bottle, which contains 2.5 servings of soda. When presented with these larger sizes, humans have a hard time regulating our intake or figuring out what a serving size is supposed to be. A 2004 study, published in Appetite, gave people potato chips packaged in bags that looked the same, but increased in size. As package size increased, so did consumption; subjects ate up to 37 percent more with the bigger bags. Furthermore, when they ate dinner later that day, they did not reduce their food consumption to compensate for increased snack calories””a recipe for weight gain.


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It’s not just food portions that have increased; plate, bowl, and cup sizes have as well. In the early 1990s, the standard size of a dinner plate increased from 10 to 12 inches; cup and bowl sizes also increased. Larger eating containers can influence how much people eat. A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that when people were given larger bowls and spoons they served themselves larger portions of ice cream and tended to eat the whole portion.

32 ounces $0.99 388 calories
44 ounces $1.09 533 calories
64 ounces $1.19 776 calories

We Americans love to get the most bang for our buck. When confronted with a 32-ounce drink for 99 cents versus a 44-ounce drink for ten cents more, the decision is easy. You’d have to be a sucker not to go big. But our ability to get the most out of our dollar doesn’t always serve us well. Value pricing, which gets us a lot more food or drink for just a little increase in price, makes sense from an economic standpoint, but is sabotage from a health standpoint. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that Americans consume around 10 percent more calories than they did in the 1970s. Given no change in physical activity, this equates to around 200 extra calories per day, or 20 pounds a year.

What is normal?

Increased portion sizes give us more calories, encourage us to eat more, distort perceptions of appropriate food quantities, and along with sedentary lifestyles, have contributed to our national bulge. Unless you’re trying to gain weight, it might help to reacquaint yourself with serving sizes. The NHLBI tells us that a serving of meat should be the size of a deck of cards while one pancake should be the size of a CD. It’s unlikely that we’ll see a scaling down of food to these sizes anytime soon, so perhaps we should all become familiar with another image: the doggy bag.

Another informative article here (suggested reading) – From Lab to Lunch: Chemicals They Call Food


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10 thoughts on “Portion Size, Then and Now

  • May 15, 2008 at 11:17 pm
    Yup, so true. We’re working on our portion sizes here–I’ve definitely cultivated a bigger-is-better attitude when it comes to food, and it’s cost me.

    Luckily, our garden is producing. Soon enough we should have lettuce we don’t have to trek to Safeway for. 😉 Life must be easier if you can plant on your own land. We’re still working on that.

  • May 16, 2008 at 2:54 am
    Even in the late 1990s, when I spent a few weeks in Florida (back in the days when one could travel unmolested to America), I was stunned at the size of the burgers, cakes, pastries, drinks, etc. The food was astoundingly cheap compared to the UK and the portions so enormous. I could feel my arteries clogging by just looking at some of it!
  • May 16, 2008 at 4:52 am
    We Americans have lived in an era of extreme abundance, thanks to an abundance of cheap energy not seen before (or since). We are, for the most part, simply a product of our environment, in this case, and environment of plenty. Many animals, when given bountiful supplies of food, will overindulge themselves to the point of bloat. Grizzly bears, for example, during good years will put on twice the weight they do in lean ones. All that is about to change, however….
  • May 16, 2008 at 6:21 am
    Another factor, too, is that you could probably still be eating exactly the same things as 50 years ago and still be more unhealthy.

    Because, for example, when beef was once grass-fed, it is now corn-fed. When chickens were once scavengers, they are now factory-farmed and mostly grain-fed. Where processed food products may have contained butter and animal fat, they now contain hydrogenated oils or other processed oils that allow them to be stored longer and travel further. Our water and fish are more polluted. And our vegetables may be genetically modified, and have fewer nutrients than they used to.

    And all of the above are potentially affected by increased use of pesticides, growth hormones and antibiotics.

    So, even if you kept everything exactly the same in the abstract, you could be worse off.

  • May 16, 2008 at 8:21 am
    There was an interesting connection of our exposure to chemicals (such as found in plastic bottles, popcorn bags) to a predisposition to obesity. Research links common chemicals to obesity. That’s just one more reason that I converted to glass bottles for a water bottle and mixing up the orange juice from concentrate. First was sustainability (when this ‘convenience store’ comsumerism ends), second health, third was adding to the plastic crap already accumulating in landfills and the oceans.
  • May 16, 2008 at 8:25 am
    Good point Matt. Apples, corn, and similar produce come immediately to mind. They’re now genetically tampered with, sprayed with chemical pesticides, fungicides, and color enhancers.
  • May 16, 2008 at 10:35 am
    aft, I tend to agree… wherever you are conscious of that kind of contamination, it makes sense to eliminate it.

    One common argument to this is that you can’t control contamination, so it’s futile to try (almost to suggest that if you can’t get rid of it all, then it makes no sense to get rid of what you can). It’s probably true that, even when you’re aware of many of the issues, there are all kinds of contamination that we aren’t aware of or have no way of controlling in our food supply. But, their effect is microscopic and only significant in aggregate — the effect is incremental and by controlling what you can, you won’t be as harmed by what you can’t.

  • May 16, 2008 at 2:55 pm
    Self-control – just because restrauants and stores offer this stuff/sizes doesn’t mean you have to eat it all in one sitting… 25/30 years from now if humans are here probably be eating large portions of ?????
  • May 16, 2008 at 4:45 pm
    Prisoner – or you don’t have to eat it all yourself. Husband and I had a ‘date’ this evening, we split a large salad and too-big sandwich between us at the restaurant.

    And last summer, at a conference, husband son and I went to an Italian restaurant and split ONE 5 course meal between the 3 of us. Five dishes, small portions, it was wonderful and not overfilling. The staff at the restaurant didn’t blink an eye – I suppose they’ve seen incredible amounts of leftover food thrown out.


  • May 16, 2008 at 7:40 pm
    Fernwise – thats what I’m talking about also… Ihop is notorious for overloading breakfasts – I usually take the pancakes home and eat them later for a supper or something…

    But now pizza is another thing – there’s a place near me that has 24 inch pizzas – you have to tip it on a angle to get it thru the door…. Only in America!

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