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  • What's a Portion?

    By Judith Weinraub
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, February 10, 1999; Page F01

    Consider the muffin, the single solitary muffin. It's the first day of your new fitness regimen, and you're determined to eat right. You've geared up to monitor your intake of calories, fats, saturated fats, sugars, essential nutrients and fiber. And you want to start your day with a muffin. You figure if you watch what you're doing, you can. But, at the risk of sounding metaphysical, what does "a muffin" mean? In nutritional terms, that is. And how many portions of fats and sugars and grains does a muffin represent?

    In this case, it is the symbol of all that is confusing about portion control – perhaps the trickiest part of eating right. What is a muffin? And what is a portion?

    Are portions the serving sizes put forward by various diet programs and eating plans, or are they the enormous plates of many restaurant meals? Could they possibly be the minuscule offerings found in frozen diet dinners? Or are they the recipe serving sizes found in cookbooks?

    And what about the serving sizes recommended by the government – mandated nutritional labels you find on a quart of milk or a loaf of bread or a jar of peanut butter? Or the servings counted up on the Food Guide Pyramid – the food guidance system developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture? Not to mention the portions ladled out – or held back – on dinner tables all across the country.

    Guess what? They're not the same. They often don't even share the same vocabulary. "They don't match," laments Jeanne Goldberg, associate professor at Tufts University School of Nutrition, Science and Policy, and the principal nutritionist on the team that gave final shape to the USDA's Food Guide Pyramid. "It's pretty stunning. It makes it extremely difficult for consumers to get their brain around – and for the average Joe on the street, it's too complicated to act on."

    True enough – look at how these various approaches deal with a single muffin. On the Food Guide Pyramid, a muffin is considered one serving, without any reference to its size or weight. At a coffee shop or restaurant, muffins weigh between three and six ounces. Is that three portions? Or six? Or somewhere in between? The diet frozen-food versions – and the larger supermarket versions – weigh in at whatever it says on their nutritional labels, sometimes referring to portion sizes and sometimes not. Food exchange programs that help dieters tally their food intake might calculate a muffin, depending on its weight, at somewhere between two to four portions of grain (wheat, rice, potatoes, and so on), around one to three portions of fat and maybe half a portion of protein. And we haven't even dealt with the muffins you make at home.

    It's no wonder people need help. "Consumers just don't know portion sizes in [anything but] consumer terms," says Harry Balzer, vice president of the NPD group, a market research firm that keeps track of what Americans eat. "When we ask about serving sizes, they just don't know the weights. They give you consumer terms. It's a cup or a bowl or a bag or a glass or a cookie. I don't know whether it's big or small." Nevertheless, if you're interested in eating right, it is possible to get a handle on portion size: Just about any system of measurement works if you pay attention to your daily consumption. But the variety of information out there takes some deciphering. Lest we leave you paralyzed in front of the refrigerator, let's walk through some of what's involved.

    The Food Pyramid

    The government tried to give us a hand with portion sizes and general nutrition when it released the USDA's Food Guide Pyramid in 1992. The pyramid, which is based on government food-consumption surveys that helped establish dietary guidelines for Americans, was designed to help Americans make good choices about what and how much to eat from the various food groups every day.

    It has become a standard reference, referred to by anybody working in nutrition.

    By itself, the pyramid is a graphic image that shows a range of servings of five essential food groups recommended by the USDA for daily nutrition, as well as fats, oils and sugars. The food groups we need in the greatest number (six to 11 servings of bread, cereal, pasta, rice, potatoes and other grains) anchor the base of the pyramid. The next level up is shared by the vegetable (3 to 5 servings) and the fruit groups (2 to 4 servings); and the next level, by the milk group (2 to 3 servings) and the meat group (also 2 to 3 servings). The idea is that almost everyone should consume at least the lowest number of servings in each range. As to how many more daily servings you can safely eat, that's up to your good sense, your scale and your doctor's recommendations.

    The pyramid is accompanied by a booklet that puts its guidelines into context to help consumers manipulate those servings in daily life. The booklet is where you find descriptions of serving sizes – for example, a slice of bread (one serving from the grain group), a half cup of vegetables (one serving from the vegetable group), a medium apple (one serving from the fruit group), a cup of milk (one serving from the milk, yogurt and cheese group), two to three ounces of cooked lean meat, poultry or fish (one serving from the lean meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs and nuts group of the pyramid). In some categories, the amounts are smaller than you might think, which is why they add up quickly and why – if you don't watch the number of servings you take in – portion control is so tough.

    "Your portion may be larger or smaller than the serving unit," says Anne Shaw, a nutritionist with the center for Nutrition Policy Promotion at the USDA. "That's okay, but you need to recognize when you're eating a grandiose muffin, that you're eating four units from the grain group."

    The booklet also supplies guidance for the number of servings consumers require at three different calorie levels: 1,600 calories for many sedentary women and most older adults; 2,200 for most children, teenage girls, active women and many sedentary men; 2,800 for teenage boys, many active men, and some very active women. (The calorie levels are based on the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences and on the actual caloric intake reported by people in national food-consumption surveys in the late 1970s and '80s. And many believe these self-reported surveys are at the root of the problem, since respondents, like most people, often underestimate what they actually eat.)

    Nutritional Labeling

    The other standardized portion sizes that enter your life virtually every day by law are those found on the nutritional labels on most food products. Like the pyramid, these portions are based on the amount people actually eat, as reported in those same food-consumption surveys. And they've got to be described on the labels in common household measures, rather than grams or other unfamiliar terms.

    They're not radically different from the pyramid's portions, but they are different, and therefore not interchangeable. "The pyramid came up with serving sizes so that within food groups servings are reasonably equivalent to another," says Ellen Anderson, a chemist in the USDA's Office of Food Labeling. "Our purpose was to come up with serving sizes based on what consumers typically eat."

    So they provide different kinds of assistance – the pyramid offering guidance about what foods to include in a good diet, and the label detailing information about food composition.

    But even knowing what those labels are based on, it's easy to make mistakes because very few products are packaged in recommended single servings.

    The first line on each label gives the serving size, and the second the number of servings per container. A careless reader – and that's most of us – could think the nutritional information (i.e., the calories, fat, cholesterol, carbohydrates and so forth) pertains to an entire container. But it doesn't – it refers to the values in an individual serving. And sometimes a container that looks to our eyes as if it would be one serving is, in fact, many more than that.

    "You shouldn't delude yourself into thinking what you're eating is what's on the label," says Naomi Kulakow, coordinator for food labeling education at the USDA. "Our major advice is to pay attention to how many servings there are in the package of food. All of the information on the label relates to a single-serving size. If there are two servings, and you eat them, you need to double the calories and nutrients in that one food."

    However, with that information in hand, a consumer can make informed decisions about portion size. "It empowers you, and helps you balance your other choices for the day," says Kulakow. "And it helps you make dietary trade-offs so you don't have to deprive yourself of favorite foods."

    Restaurant Portions

    If you're curious about how we got so confused about portion sizes in the first place, think about how often and how much we eat out. Nutritionists point to restaurant eating as a major influence – and Americans spend more of their food dollar outside the home each year, according to the National Restaurant Association. So it's not surprising that the large portions we see in restaurants, cafeterias, sporting events – even on street vendors' carts – have an impact. "So many of our meals are eaten out [that] our serving sizes are being redefined for us in terms of what we see on plates," says Karen Miller-Kovach, the chief nutritionist for Weight Watchers International.

    There sure is a lot on those plates. "From fast-food restaurants to the family-style all-you-can-eat places, we're used to having this incredible volume of food offered to us for pennies," says Jane Kirby, a registered dietitian since 1976 and the author of the recently released "Dieting For Dummies." "We're conditioned to think bigger is better, but healthwise it's no bargain."

    Nevertheless, filling those plates is usually good business. "We definitely want to make sure customers walk away feeling like they got good value for the money they spent," says Louis Adams, spokesman for the Chili's restaurant chain. "Nobody wants to shell out money for a steak they thought was too small."

    No restaurant wants to see customers disappear either. "A chef has two decisions," says restaurant consultant Bob McKay. "Either make the meal bigger to give more value or keep it the same or smaller and give the value through quality and presentation. It all comes back to value."

    Some restaurants even make mega-size portions a mainstay. Maggiano's Little Italy – a popular 10-restaurant chain with branches at Tyson's Corner and in Chevy Chase, has adopted that strategy. "We're a value-driven restaurant," says Matthew Mulvihill, the manager in Chevy Chase. So Maggiano's kitchens use super-size dinner plates (15½ inches in diameter), pile on two pounds of pasta for a large order (only one pound for a small size), and wrap up anything left over in tins with reheating instructions.

    And if all those mega-portions weren't enough, consider this: The more we eat outside the home, the less we cook, and the less familiar we become with ounces and grams, or even cups and tablespoons. Is it any wonder people don't know what a normal portion looks like?

    How to Recognize Portion Sizes

    Sooner or later, working with nutritional labels or the recommendations of the food pyramid – or for that matter, the serving-size recommendations of many of the weight-loss programs – a consumer can learn the size and weight of appropriate portion sizes.

    Theoretically, anyway. Applying those numbers to hamburgers or pasta or ice cream is a little harder. Ideally, we're in environments where we can weigh and measure foods. And of course, that's the most precise way to go.

    But realistically, we're on our own in restaurants, at any takeout place where the food has been prepared on the premises (the nutritional labeling law doesn't apply there), and for that matter, at home if we don't measure.

    Over the years, common denominators have developed to give consumers a hand. The best known of these is the proverbial pack of cards – an image whose size is compared to the three-ounce portion of meat, fish or poultry considered to be an adequate amount.

    But recently, the human hand has taken over – an average woman's hand, that is. The palm of the hand compares to the size of a three-ounce portion; when closed, the fist represents about a cup; the thumb tip, a teaspoon; and from the tip to the joint of the thumb, a tablespoon.

    "It's more descriptive," says Weight Watchers' Karen Miller-Kovach. "Your hand is always with you. You don't have to pull out a measuring cup or a spoon." So much for not being able to weigh and measure in a restaurant.

    "And when you start paying attention it's eye-opening," she adds. "We say a cup of pasta is a reasonable portion – and if you take your fist and put in a ball, that's a cup. People will say 'Wow. When I go to my favorite Italian restaurant, I must be getting six or seven cups of pasta on plate and thinking it's a reasonable amount.'"

    Nutritionist, author and TV personality Carrie Latt Wiatt has an even more literal approach. Her just-published "Portion Savvy" (Pocket Books, $24) features portion-size pop-outs that are paper doll-like templates for appropriate portion sizes at three different calorie levels.

    But if guidelines fail, the alternative is to learn what portions really look like. In a bowl. On a plate. Even spread on a piece of bread.

    "Can you eyeball a tablespoon of mayonnaise and say that's what a tablespoon looks like," asks Tufts Jeanne Goldberg. "If you can, cool. If you can't, it's worth it to go to the trouble of measuring and taking a look at what a tablespoon looks like – how far it goes on your sandwich.

    "And once you've done it, you've done it – though a month down the road, you might to do a reality check on yourself."

    How to Feel Satisfied

    Determining appropriate portion sizes and recognizing them are crucial first steps to learning to eat fit. Important steps, but not a solution. For that you need to learn how to be satisfied with eating in moderation. And satisfaction is a very personal matter. It isn't easy for anybody.

    Nevertheless, nutritionists point to some basic, tried-and-true behavioral techniques that will help you be satisfied with smaller portions. They are not stop-the-press recommendations, but they do seem to work:

    Try to fill up on high-fiber, low-fat foods.

    Opt for lower-fat versions of the foods you eat (2 percent milk instead of whole milk, skim milk instead of 2 percent).

    Slow down, and actually taste your food. Put down your fork between bites.

    And if you slow down, you're more likely to enjoy what you eat and recognize when you're full. "Eating when you're hungry and stopping when you're not is probably the most valuable trick anyone can learn," says Jane Kirby.

    The other really useful trick is to eat a little of what you like. "I'd rather people get more nutrient-rich calories, but you still need to be satisfied," says Carrie Wiatt. "You need to put the foods that you like the best in your daily diet, but in a smaller way. Because the only way to conquer weight loss is to have the foods you love and crave, but to eat less of them."

    Translation: You can still eat chocolate once in a while if you eat small portions. Very small portions.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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