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7 Expert Tricks for Calorie and Portion Control

Serving sizes and calories just keep increasing. Here's how to stop calorie inflation.
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Gone are the days when french fries came in 3-ounce bags, bagels were no bigger than hockey pucks, and soft drinks topped out at 12 ounces.  And it's not just restaurants that are supersizing food portion sizes and boosting calories. Home cooks are following suit.

In a letter published recently in the Annals of Internal Medicine, two researchers described their review of 18 classic recipes (for things like baked macaroni and cheese and brownies) published in editions of The Joy of Cooking from 1936 to 2006. They found that average calories per serving had increased for 17 of those 18 recipes since the popular cookbook's 1936 edition.

Two-thirds of those recipes were more caloric either because they included more fattening ingredients like meats, cheese, or rich sauces, or because they used less of lower-calorie ingredients like vegetables. The remaining recipes had larger serving sizes.

"In these lean times, with more people saving their food dollars and eating at home, we need to start changing the way we eat by downsizing serving sizes and calories in our favorite recipes," says letter author Brian Wansink, PhD, a Cornell University researcher and author of Mindful Eating.

One of the problems, he says, is that recipes have increased in calories and portion sizes while families are smaller than they were 10-20 years ago. "The recipe was originally designed to feed a family of 6-8, but today a family of four is finishing the entire dish," says Wansink

A few extra calories here and there might not seem like a lot, but they can really add up over time, says Cheryl Forberg, RD, dietitian for The Biggest Loser reality show. "If we don’t start eating healthier," she warns, "more people are going to end up like the contestants on the show without the benefit of an intensive intervention."

WebMD consulted the experts for tips to help you control portions and avoid calorie inflation of your favorite foods, whether you're eating at home or at a restaurant.

Calorie Control Tip No. 1: Add Healthy 'Extras' to Your Recipes

When you boost the proportion of low-fat fruits, vegetables, and herbs in your dishes, you naturally cut calories while adding nutrition.  "When you increase vegetables, you add more fiber and water, and therefore you can eat a larger, more filling portion without lots of calories," says Ellie Krieger, RD, host of the Food Network’s Healthy Appetite show.

Jackie Newgent, RD, chef and author of the Big Green Cookbook, takes it a step further. "Try to incorporate a fruit or vegetable into every recipe you make," she says. "When you add spinach into lasagna, you are adding flavorful ingredients which allow you to reduce some of the richer ingredients which make the dish more filling and satisfying." 

Another trick to cut calories without compromising flavor is to use herbs liberally.  “Most herbs, except more potent ones like rosemary, can easily be doubled in recipes and really perk up a dish with color, appeal, and flavor so you can use less of the richer ingredients." says Newgent.

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