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The Portion Problem

Why do Americans find it so difficult to downsize at the dinner table?

The Clean Plate Habit continued...

Further, "the environment is a complete setup that conspires against reasonable-sized portions," says Kelly Brownell, PhD, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.

For example, consider food prices, says Brownell: "Prices are usually better for larger portions, which play into people's obsession with value -- they care about quantity vs. quality."

Schwartz notes that both our biology and the environment are working against us.

"There are many variables that influence how much we eat that operate at a completely unconscious level," says Schwartz. "People eat more when they are eating with more people, when they stay at the table longer, when there is more variety in what is served, when the food is physically closer to us, and when the food is easier to access."

So would we be more likely to eat reasonable portions if we tried to work against these factors – say, if we cleared the table quickly and visited after the meal instead of during it; limited the variety within our meals; and kept serving plates in the kitchen instead of on the dinner table? Schwartz thinks so.

How to Get Started

Schwartz likens eating healthfully in our current environment to a part-time job that requires knowledge, time, energy, and constant vigilance.

"It's not reasonable to expect an entire population of people to do this," says Schwartz. "We need to change the environment so the healthy behavior is the automatic, default behavior, not the one that requires work."

Levitsky believes people need to see the positive consequences of reducing portion sizes. His research has shown that one such motivation is weight loss. "If people monitor their weight daily they can see the changes occur within a couple of days," he says.

"It would be nice to eliminate the overeating that occurs simply because people hate to waste food," says Anne Becker, MD, PhD, director of the Eating Disorders Clinical and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. To change this, she speculates that choosing and serving small portions would need to become both more visible and more prestigious.

Brownell says that people not only need to start buying smaller portions when they eat out, but also need to become agents of change. He urges people to start lobbying food companies about what they want to see.

If you're ready to start cutting back on your own portion sizes, here are a few tips that may help:

  • Start with smaller amounts of food. You can always go back for more if you're still hungry.
  • Don't rush your meal. You're more likely to be satisfied with a smaller portion if you take your time to enjoy each bite.
  • Don't keep serving bowls on the table, unless they contain fresh fruits and vegetables (most of us need to eat more of these).
  • When you eat out, put half of your portion in a take-out container as soon as the food arrives. Or, split an entrée with a companion, and order soup, salad, or a vegetable side dish to round out the meal.
  • Seek out restaurants that don't serve huge portions.
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