Downsizing your portions

March 30, 2018

If you find your waistline growing, you might want to check the size of something else: your portions.

A woman serves up salad on a plate. Americans are getting more and more obese. Downsizing your portions is a quick way to reverse weight gain.
Average Americans now consume about 23 percent more calories each day than in 1970. Just 100 more calories each day can result in an extra 10 pounds of weight in a year.

Portion control is an important part of managing weight. And the statistics on portions are staggering.

Average Americans now consume about 23 percent more calories each day than in 1970. Portions served in restaurants have grown even faster, doubling or even tripling over the past 20 years.

And eating often takes place haphazardly: a bagel in the car on the way to work, or a fast-food dinner on the way home from your child’s sports game.

All of those extra calories add up: just 100 more calories each day can result in an extra 10 pounds of weight in a year.

“Before 1900, under-nutrition was a big problem, and now we’ve really gotten to the point where obesity is the No. 1 problem,” said Dr. Charlie Petersen, an internal medicine physician in Steamboat Springs. “Food is convenient and it’s relatively cheap. You couple higher calorie intake with less exercise, and we have an explosion of obesity.”

Though the supersized meals make it easy to lose track of what an actual portion is, your body will usually tell you: as long as you take time to listen.

“The most important part of portion control is that you’re eating mindfully,” Petersen said. “That’s the key.”

Petersen describes eating mindfully as paying attention to eating itself. Instead of reading the newspaper or watching television while you eat, you should focus on enjoying the meal and watch for signals that you’ve had enough.

Those signals aren’t immediate. As the stomach fills with food, the brain is alerted and eventually, hormones are released that contribute to a feeling of satiety or fullness. But the process can take 20 or 30 minutes.

“There’s a substantial lag between eating a meal and the feeling of being full,” said Petersen. “It might be half an hour, and then you say, ‘Ooh, I’m stuffed.’”

One way to encourage mindful eating is to write down what you eat.

“People really underestimate how many calories they’re taking in,” Petersen said. “You grab a few chips on the way home, maybe a café latte, and don’t really take it into account. Writing it down forces you to say, ‘Do I want it?’”

Other tips for eating proper portions include using a smaller plate, drinking water instead of calorie-laden beverages and understanding true portion sizes. For instance, a serving of meat should be the size of a deck of cards, a serving of cheese is the size of four die and a serving of cooked pasta is about the size of your fist.

When dining out, share an entree or bring home leftovers. And plan ahead when evenings are busy with activities: Petersen recommends packing a cooler with snacks such as fruit, granola bars and bottles of vegetable juice.

“The plan would be to have a snack and then make it home for dinner without having to eat foods you otherwise would not eat,” Petersen said. “Some of these unpredictable events are actually very predictable, so you can plan ahead.”

It’s also important to eat your fruits and vegetables, even if it means sometimes breaking the don’t-eat-in-the-car rule.

“People often do a good job at eliminating so-called bad things from their diet, but are they getting enough good things?” Petersen said. “If the goal is seven to ten servings of fruit and vegetables a day, how can we incorporate them? An apple on the way to work is one way.”

This article references data from and

This article first appeared in the Steamboat Pilot & Today on March 12, 2018.

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. Reach her at [email protected].

About the author

Susan Cunningham lives in the Colorado Rocky Mountains with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys science nearly as much as writing: she’s traveled to the bottom of the ocean via submarine to observe life at hydrothermal vents, camped out on an island of birds to study tern behavior, and now spends time in an office writing and analyzing data. She blogs about writing and science at