Eating Out–The Proper Portion

By Olivia C. Rossi, RN, MSN, ACSM
Your Personal Trainer:

Four of us went out to eat that night, a celebration of the New Year and a friend’s birthday.  Each of us ordered a different item from the menu, no appetizers, no soup, just the entrees.  My husband and I shared a salad.  We brought home two “Doggie Boxes.”  The next evening, I made beef stroganoff for three from the left over piece of my mother’s rib-eye steak.  The following day, I divided the rest of the leftovers to make lunch for three.

Eating out can be a challenge given the size of the portions served.  What was once served on a dinner plate for one is now often served on a platter that would easily serve four!  As portion sizes have increased, so have “people” sizes.  Fewer people can sit side-by-side on benches, bleachers, couches and pews because the human “beam” is broader than it was twenty or thirty years ago. 

Obesity has become a public health problem of epidemic proportions, especially in children.  An increase in portion sizes and ready availability of food, combined with a decrease in physical activity, have led in large part to this problem.

The greatest expansion in portion size is in food served at fast food eateries.  Much like “surround-sound,” we have perfected “food-all-around,” from regular, to king, to super-sized.  In the 1950’s and 60’s, for instance, McDonald’s offered only one size of french fries containing about 200 calories.  In the 1970’s, the large version was introduced at 320 calories.  That version became the medium in the 1980’s and the new large expanded to 400 calories.  By the 1990’s, the “super-size fries” option offered 540 calories and a few years later became 610 calories.  And that’s just the fries!

It’s not only fast food restaurants that have expanded portions.  “Twenty years ago, a traditional pasta dinner consisted of one cup of spaghetti with sauce and three small meatballs (500 calories).  Today, it is common to receive two to three cups of pasta with sauce and three large meatballs for a total of 1,025-1,250 calories.  A restaurant portion can be worth a total day’s worth of calories for some individuals.” 1

A portion and a serving are not the same thing when it comes to the recommendations of the Food Pyramid.  I’ve often had people say to me, “I only have one serving . . .  .”  We  consider a serving to be what’s on our plate, when it’s really a portion, the portion we either help ourselves to or that is put in front of us at a restaurant.  Those portions are growing ever larger and contain more servings than they did in the past.

What can you do?  You can do what I did and what many people do–take your extra servings (leftovers) home in a “Doggie Box.”  Order a la carte.  Choose small or regular sizes.   Don’t be tempted by offers of twice as much food for only $1.50 more.  $1.50 more may mean 200-300 calories more and that adds up in pounds over time.  Think of the reverse of that:  eating 100 fewer calories per day amounts to a 10 pound weight loss in a year.  Become a food detective.  Read labels.  Use the resources on-line by going to and familiarize yourself with serving sizes for various ages and activity levels.  Get your portion sizes in line with your serving sizes whether you are eating out or at home.  Once you have a better understanding of recommended serving sizes, it will be easier for you to recognize “The Proper Portion” for you.

1  ACSM Health and Fitness Journal.  May/June 2006

Yours in fitness,

Olivia C. Rossi, RN, MSN
Certified Clinical Exercise Specialist, ACSM
Certified Personal Trainer, ACSM

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