Portion Distortion: Disparity between awareness and action
Early in 2003, both the Journal of the American Dietetic Association and the Journal of the American Medical Association published articles on the dramatic increase in food portion sizes in the U.S. The studies reported that over a 20 year period of time, portion sizes increased 60% for chips, 52% for soft drinks, 27% for Mexican food, and 23% for hamburgers. Increased portion sizes teamed with many people’s desire to clean their plates, gave rise to the term “portion distortion.” The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) completed a phone survey in February of 2006 that came to this conclusion: although many Americans are now aware of “portion distortion,” most have not made changes in their eating behaviors.
One alarming finding from the studies released in 2003 was that for the first time increased portion sizes were not only reserved for meals away from home, but indeed larger portion sizes had found there way into American homes.
The documentary film Super Size Me brought the issue of large portion sizes down to a very compelling human level.
Since the studies were first reported in 2003 some promising trends started. McDonald’s phased out its “supersize” portions. In spring of 2005, the restaurant chain “Ruby Tuesday” cut back on portion sizes of some entrees. Unfortunately, the chair discontinued the smaller portions after just 5 months due to a 5% loss in business.
The AICR survey found that awareness of larger food portion sizes had increased from 20% in 2003 to 53% in 2006. Of people responding to the survey, 37% reported they had made an effort to decrease their portion sizes served at home but only 25% said they tried to eat smaller portion sizes when eating meals away from home. Over half the respondents to the survey (54%) said they tried to clean their plates, no matter how much food they were served. According to the survey, the number of “clean plate members” in the U.S. increased from an estimated 89 million in 2003 to an estimated 159 million in 2006.
A recent study completed by Cornell University found that external cues and most notably portion size, had a much larger impact on how much food was consumed by study participants when compared to internal cues. David Levitsky, one of the lead researchers for the study, stated: “Consistently we find that how much people eat is in direct relation to how much they are served.”
Levitsky D, Obarzanek E, Mrdjenovic G, Strupp B. Imprecise control of energy intake: Absence of a reduction in food intake following overfeeding in young adults. Physiology and Behavior, 84(5):669-675. April 2005.
Weldon G. Prince J. New Survey on Portion Size: American Still Cleaning Plates. The American Institute for Cancer Research news release. February 22, 2006.
Lang S. Cornell overeating study suggests that how much we eat depends more on external cues, such as portion size, than on biological signals. Cornell University news release. August 15, 2005.
Compiled by Betty Holmes, MS, RD
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