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Growing Portion Sizes

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Ever wonder why Americans are gettin bigger?  Its it the lack of exercise? Yes.  Is it the ingredients that manufacturers put into our food?  Yes.  Probably something that people didn’t realize is how much the portion size has changed over the last 20 years.  With bucket-sized soft drinks, bagels the size of baseballs, and burgers that you can barely get your mouth around, it’s no wonder that, according to the CDC, one-third of adult Americans are currently obese. In the last 20 years portions have been ballooning — and we’ve been getting bigger right along with them. From 1980 to 2008, obesity rates doubled for adults and tripled for children.

Several studies published in 2003 document increases in  portion sizes for many popular foods. This amounts to an additional 50-150 calories  per meal.  So what’s the big deal, you might ask. What’s the harm of  eating a few extra calories here and there? The answer is simple: An extra 10  calories per day could add up to a pound of weight gain per year.  So, if you’re consuming an extra 100 calories from soft  drinks and snacks every day, you could pack on an extra 10 pounds of weight  in a year.

Thanks to the National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute (part of the National Institutes of Health), we can take a peek back at what portions looked like 20 years ago and compare that to what they look like now. Hint? They’ve gotten a lot, lot bigger. (via

Portion Sizes 20 Years Ago and Today


Then: 3-inch diameter, 140 calories        Now: 6-inch diameter, 350 calories

Fast Food Cheeseburgers

Then: 333 calories                      Now: 590 Calories

Spaghetti and Meatballs

Then: 1 cup of spaghetti and sauce with 3 meatballs, 500 calories    Now: 2 cups of pasta and sauce with 3 meatballs, 1,025 calories


Then: 6.5 ounces, 85 calories                Now: 20 ounces, 250 calories

Blueberry Muffin

Then: 1.5 ounces, 210 calories          Now: 5 ounces, 500 calories

French Fries

Then: 2.4 ounces, 210 calories             Now: 6.9 ounces, 610 calories

Two Slices of Pizza


Twenty years  ago                                                    Today
                                           500  calories                                                              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                                                   Today
Coffee with milk and  sugar                                        Grande café mocha with whip, 2% milk
8  ounces                                                                  16 ounces
45  calories                                                              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                                         Today
5  cups                                                            Tub
270  calories                                                   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.



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

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.


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