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Portion Distortion – How to Control Food Portion Sizes & Fix Obesity Statistics in America

You’ve just walked into your favorite fast food place. You ordered your standard Value Meal #4: hamburger with cheese, french fries, and a drink.

When your order comes out, everything looks just as it should be, and you dig in. But if someone from the past had traveled in time from 1965 to eat lunch with you, their mouth would be on the floor after seeing the size of your meal. That’s because the average fast food meal is several times the size it was even a few decades ago.

In the 1960s, the average hamburger was 4 ounces, the fries were 3 ounces, and the drink was 10 ounces.

Today, the average hamburger is 7.6 ounces, the fries are 7 ounces, and the drink is 32 ounces. A Supersized Value Meal can contain over 2,000 calories – more than many of us need to eat in an entire day.

This portion distortion has some incredibly harmful side effects. Here’s why you should be concerned, and what you can do to eat healthier portions.

The Obesity Epidemic

There is a serious obesity problem in the United States. Take a look at these incredible graphs released by the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

The first graph represents the prevalence of obesity in the United State in 1985. (Obesity is defined as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or higher.) The graph is color-coded to show the percentage of each state’s population classified as obese. In 1985, in Tennessee, less than 10% of the population was obese.

The next graph shows the prevalence of obesity 10 years later, in 1995. Looking at Tennessee again, 15% to 19% of that state’s population was obese in 1995.

Finally, the last graph shows the prevalence of obesity in 2009. It’s a lot more colorful. As of 2009, more than 30% of Tennessee’s population was obese.

Of course, none of these graphs represent the portion of our population who are overweight – those with a BMI between 25 and 29.9. The CDC estimates that more than two-thirds of American adults and one-third of American children are overweight or obese.

Our Portions Keep Growing…

There’s no doubt our portions are getting bigger along with our waistlines. But because they’re bigger everywhere, most of us don’t recognize we’re eating far more than we need to be, and we have no idea how to tell the correct portion. “Supersized” has become the new normal.

For instance, take a look at the bagels below. The bagel on the left is the size bagels used to be 20 years ago. The bagel on the right is the size they are today.

bagel portions

Pretty dramatic difference, right?

And it’s not just bagels and fast food that’s oversized – everything is. From our Starbucks coffee to the packaged food we buy at the grocery store, our portions are way out of control.

How to Calculate Correct Portions

Regulating our food intake is challenging because even when our food isn’t oversized, we don’t stop to think about how much we’re eating.

For instance, if you look on the back of a box of pasta, you’ll see that a recommended “serving” is 1 cup of pasta, which is about 210 calories. But according to the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines, 1 cup actually equals two servings.

How much is a cup? You might be surprised if you measure it out. Normally, we just pour a bunch of pasta in our bowl and set to work. Often, we eat 4 to 5 cups of pasta during dinner, which can be 1,000 calories or more. Add in some sauce and meatballs, and you’ve consumed most of your required caloric daily intake.

One of the best ways to cut calories in your diet is to measure the food you put on your plate. When you’re serving yourself, use a measuring cup to dole it out. This will give you an accurate look at how many calories you’re consuming.

If you don’t want to carry measuring cups and spoons with you all the time, WebMD suggests comparing portion sizes to household products to make counting calories easier. For instance:

  • 1 cup of cooked pasta is about the size of a tennis ball.
  • 1.5 oz. of cheese is the size of three stacked dominoes.
  • 2 tablespoons of peanut butter is the size of a ping pong ball.
  • 1/2 cup of vegetables is the size of a lightbulb.
  • 3 oz. of meat is the size of a deck of cards.
  • A 3 oz. serving of fish is the size of a checkbook.

More Tips to Avoid Portion Distortion

Measuring can get tedious, so use these easy tips to cut down on portion distortion:

  • Use a salad plate instead of a dinner plate for your meals.
  • Whenever you eat out, immediately put half of your meal into a to-go box. Restaurant food is notoriously oversized, and you’ll cut down on your caloric intake 50% by doing this. If you’re still hungry, order a small salad.
  • Fill half of your plate with fruits or vegetables.
  • Learn how to eat healthy on a budget.
  • If you like to snack in front of the TV, put your snack in a bowl rather than bringing the entire bag or box to the couch with you. This will help you avoid “unconscious eating,” which is common when watching TV.

Do you have any tricks that help you cut down on portions and eat healthier?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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