Increasing portion sizes

Food portion sizes are increasing, and so are our waistlines. We investigate the connection.
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We take a look at the connection between increasing food portion sizes and increasing waistlines.

In this article:

Food portion sizes are increasing. In the US in the 1950s, McDonald’s offered just one size of soft drink – 7oz (about 210mL). It now has 12, 16, 21 and 32oz (950mL) offerings. And French fries and hamburgers are now two to five times larger than those originally offered. Portion distortion has even occurred in the home, where the sizes of our bowls and glasses have steadily increased and the surface area of the average dinner plate has increased 36% since 1960.

Why does this matter? Put simply, the bigger the portion, the more you eat and the more kilojoules (energy) you consume. Between 1983/85 and 1995, energy intake increased significantly for both adults and children in Australia. Without an equivalent increase in energy expenditure, increases in energy intake can result in significant weight gain over time.

The latest food and nutrition publication from the government’s Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that we have one of the highest rates of obesity in the world – 23% of children and 61% of adults are overweight or obese. So any factor contributing to increasing energy intakes and rising obesity rates needs be taken very seriously.

Portions vs servings

Manufacturers and the food industry recommend serving sizes for their food (shown on the nutrition information panel or posted on websites), and these are used to determine the percentage daily intake (%DI) figures for kilojoules and other nutrients that some manufacturers choose to display on food labels. Portion size, on the other hand, is the amount of food you actually serve up for yourself or purchase to eat.

In theory you should be able to use these manufacturer serving recommendations to monitor and control how much you’re eating. But with large packets that contain multiple servings – including even some foods that are packed into what appear to be individual portions – following the recommended serving sizes isn’t necessarily as sensible or straightforward as it sounds.

In the US, serving sizes are regulated by its Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but these have been criticised as out of date and unrealistic. In many instances they’re smaller than the amounts typically eaten, with critics arguing they understate the kilojoules, sodium and saturated fat people will actually consume as a result.

In Australia, it’s up to the manufacturer to determine the serving sizes, and this system is also flawed. Serving sizes are often inconsistent between comparable products, and even within the same brands, and some are simply unrealistic. Serving size nonsense gives examples.

And as in the US, in some food categories such as cereal products, serving sizes are lower than the typical reported amounts consumed by adult Australians and those recommended in the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating. It’s not surprising that studies have found that people generally can’t correctly estimate the number of servings in a package.

Hidden costs of supersizing

How much we eat is often dictated by the size of the packet we buy or the dish we order—the portion size – not the recommended serving sizes. As food containers, restaurant portions and drink bottles have become increasingly supersized, the gap between servings and portions has become really out of whack. And these supersized portions are having a big impact on the amount of kilojoules we’re consuming.

Supersizing, or value adding, is a technique used by food companies to increase profits. It encourages you to spend a little extra to purchase larger portion sizes and leaves you feeling that you’ve gotten a good deal. A US study looked at this practice, and found that more often than not there are hidden nutritional costs. 

  • Upgrading from a small to a medium-sized bag of popcorn at the movies, for example, cost 71 more cents, but also an additional 500 calories – in other words, a 23% increase in price buys 125% more calories. 
  • And ordering a supersize Coke rather than the small version at McDonald’s cost 58% more but came with 173% more calories.

A visit to our local shops found similar examples. 

  • A Cherry Ripe twin pack cost 11% more and gave 54% more kilojoules than the regular 52g bar. 
  • And a foot long Italian Meatball sub from Subway cost 50% more than the six-inch version but provided 100% more kilojoules.


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