Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Sleight of Hand

We call it “portion distortion.” And, while a portion is technically the amount of a specific food you decide to eat, you may not have all the information you need to know exactly how large or small that “portion” should be—or how that “portion” is maybe sabotaging your best intentions. While the terms serving and portion often are used interchangeably, they actually mean different things. Keep in mind, serving size is not portion size.

Put another way, serving size is a standard unit of measuring foods (a cup, an ounce, 2 cookies, 10 goldfish crackers). Portion size is the amount offered in the packaging of prepared foods (like the Triple Whopper from Burger King), the amount served by a restaurant, or the amount a person chooses to put on his or her plate. Sometimes the packaging itself contains more than a single serving.

And that’s where the sleight of hand comes in to play.

Before you reach for your next handful of chips, look at the back of the bag. It probably says something like, “serving size, 1 oz; servings per container, 14,” and then goes on to list calories, fat, carbs and sodium—per serving size. But, how do you know how many chips that really is? The question is important because the standard serving size shown on a package determines all the other nutritional values on the label, including calorie counts. If the listed serving size is smaller than what you really eat, (and for most of us, it usually is) you are probably getting more calories, sodium and fat than you think. The outcome—rather than helping fight obesity, the confusion over labeling terminology may simply add to the perplexity over what makes a healthful diet.

But, what about portion size? Don’t we already know what our portions should be? Do we?

According to a 2007 paper published in the Journal of Public Health Policy, portion sizes offered by fast food chains are two to five times larger than when first introduced. When McDonald’s first opened in 1955, its only hamburger weighed about 1.6 ounces. Today, the largest hamburger patty weighs 8 ounces, an increase of 400 percent. And while a Big Mac used to be considered big, it’s actually smaller than many burger options. At Burger King, you can get the Triple Whopper; at Ruby Tuesday’s there’s the Colossal Burger; and Carl’s Junior has the Western Bacon Six Dollar Burger. These are “portions,” not “servings.”

But we eat them anyway.

And more . . . Between 1977 and 1996, a small snack-size bag of chips and a Coke increased by 142 calories. Sure, it's the same snack as 30 years ago, just a bigger portion. Eat it just two or three times a week and you'll gain up to 6 pounds more this year than you would have back then.

And, still more . . . consider the single serving products that end up actually containing more than a single serving. One of the most obvious—the 20 oz soft drinks meant for a single person yet they contain two and a half servings! Obviously it’s not enough to just check the calorie count per serving, you also need to make sure the serving size suggested by the manufacturer is what you really intend to consume.

Get ready for a jolt of reality. Labels are going to change. We’ll probably see bigger labels, and we’ll see more of them on the front of packaging. We may see changes in recommended serving sizes. But, you still need to know the difference between serving size and portion size, and you need to know what the size of each should be.

Be on the look for labeling “sleight of hand” tricks—after all, shouldn’t you decide what your portion sizes should be rather than what the food industry thinks you’ll consume if you don’t know any better?

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