There’s no denying that portion control is crucial for reining in calories. But keeping track of how much you eat is a challenge, made no easier by the expanding reality of what’s normal, starting in the morning with oversized muffins, bigger bagels and ever larger lattes. Face it, portion sizes are out of control.
Snack makers have found a way to benefit by tackling the issue with 100-calorie packs that provide popular built-in portion control. On the other hand, some fast-food companies have given nothing but lip service to reducing fats and calories, and have even upped the ante by offering 1,400-calorie burgers and 920-calorie breakfast burritos. Sit-down restaurants try to have it both ways with Jekyll-and-Hyde offerings.
EN examines this disconnect and offers sensible tips to keep you in control.
Sizing Up the Fast-Food Problem. In a recent New York University study that compared portion sizes of fast foods from 1998 through 2006, researchers found that unlike the snack-pack trend in grocery stores, the serving sizes of fast-food hamburgers, sodas and French fries have not gotten smaller, but often bigger.
Burger King, for example, increased its portion sizes and introduced large specialty hamburgers. Last year, it began offering BK Stacker sandwiches in four sizes; Single, Double, Triple and Quad. Yes, quad, as in four! The quad burger weighs more than 11 ounces and contains an equally hefty 1,000 calories.
Since 2003, Hardee’s has offered a Monster Thickburger with 12 ounces of beef and 1,420 calories and it recently introduced its Country Breakfast Burrito, which weighs in at 920 calories and 60 grams of fat?a full day’s quota of fat.
Sneaky Supersizing. The NYU researchers note that during the eight-year span of the study, McDonald’s pared portion sizes more than Burger King and Wendy’s. McD’s dropped its Supersize soda and French fries in 2004 and reduced the size of its medium and large fries.
But not entirely. It now seems the company is flirting with larger sizes again, just without the supersized semantics that spawned the movie Supersize Me, a less-than-flattering look at fast food. In 2006, McD’s quietly brought back the 42-ounce soda as a limited summer promotion. Burger King and Wendy’s continue to offer a 42-ounce soda.
But manipulation of portions is most sinister when it involves sleight of name. In 2006, for example, Wendy’s dropped its Biggie and Great Biggie French fries in name only; the Medium size was simply renamed Small, the Biggie became Medium, and the Great Biggie was renamed Large. Similar name changes were made to soda sizes.
The Lucrative Snack Slim-Down. Things look very different in the supermarket aisles, where you?ll find a growing selection of portion-controlled snacks. The allure of single-serve snacks is that they help you limit intake without having to weigh or measure portions. These snacks get high marks for convenience and the 100-calorie ceiling reduces the guilt some people feel about snacking.
So what’s the problem? These 100-calorie packs are hardly nutrition dynamos. Most are made with refined flour and sugar and contain very little fiber, though some are lower in fat than their original counterparts.
?The 100-calorie packs are better for you than 300-calorie snacks, but they?re not exactly health food,? says Lisa Young, Ph.D., R.D., a researcher with the NYU study and author of The Portion Teller Plan: The No-Diet Reality Guide to Eating, Cheating and Losing Weight Permanently (Morgan Road Books, 2005). ?For 100 calories, you?re better off eating a piece of fruit.?
Moreover, these snacks are costly for your wallet and the environment. They?re often more than double the price per ounce of the companion item in a larger package. And the extra packaging required is environmentally unfriendly.
For some people, the convenience of grab-and-go, portion-controlled packs is worth the cost. But here’s a secret: The slimmed down 100-calorie product isn’t always a copy of the original. For example, 100-calorie Oreo Thin Crisps are chocolate wafers without the signature creamy middle of an Oreo cookie.
So here’s a thought: To cut costs and packaging waste, portion out your own snacks into reusable plastic containers (see ?Do-It-Yourself,? above).
Practicing Portion Control. Here are some tips to use when food shopping, eating at home and dining out:
At the Supermarket:
- Load your shopping cart with colorful, fiber-rich fresh fruits and vegetables. There’s no need to skimp on portions in the produce aisle.
- Weigh food costs against your weight goals. Buying jumbo-size packages may save you money, but the more you buy, the more you?ll likely eat. And that’s no bargain.
- If it helps you, buy small, such as bags of snacks, 100-calorie packs or items wrapped individually like frozen juice bars or low-fat fudge pops.
- Cook in large batches to save time, freezing the extra as single servings.
- Choose dinner plates no larger than nine inches or eat from a salad plate instead. Use a six-ounce glass for juice to limit consumption.
- Serve one portion onto each plate in the kitchen rather than serving family-style at the table. Stick to one serving, except for vegetables.
- Drop out of the ?clean plate club.? When you?re almost full, stop eating. Give your brain time to catch up with your stomach. Save extra food for lunch the next day.
- Ask for an appetizer portion of an entr?e and add a salad, choose items off the children’s menu or share an entr?e with a dining companion.
- Read fast-food nutrition information in store brochures or on the website in advance, when possible.
- Don’t rely on the names of sizes; ask your server to show you the cup or serving size?a ?medium? may be larger than you think.
- Don’t overeat just because you paid for it; take the rest home in a doggie bag and enjoy it the next day.