Are Growing Portion Sizes Leading to Expanding Waistlines?

February 2003 - If you think food manufacturers are skimping on portion sizes, think again. According to a study published in the February issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, portion sizes of many popular restaurant and packaged foods have increased substantially during the past 20 years, especially when compared to their sizes when they were first introduced.

"This trend toward larger marketplace portions parallels the rising rates of obesity in our country," says registered dietitian and ADA spokesperson Keith Ayoob.

Researchers from New York University compared portion sizes to federal standards, finding that most marketplace portions exceed standard sizes by as much as eight times. The researchers also found that portion sizes of many foods and beverages nowadays are two to five times larger then when the item first became commercially available.

"Because marketplace portions are consistently so much larger than Department of Agriculture standard servings, consumers need to be aware that one bagel can easily comprise six grain servings," Ayoob says. "This discrepancy explains why many Americans view six to 11 grain servings per day as 'too much to eat.' At our current portion sizes, it is too much."

The researchers found that portions of some foods exceed the serving sizes recommended on the package's food label. The labels list the number of calories per serving, but the researchers point out that individually packaged items sometimes contain 2.5 or more standard label servings. The Food and Drug Administration's rule that a food weighing less than twice the standard serving amount may be labeled "one serving per container" adds much confusion to Americans' already distorted image of portion sizes, according to the researchers.

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"A standard soda serving is eight ounces, so both eight-ounce and 12-ounce sodas are labeled as one serving, while a 20-ounce soda is labeled as 2.5 servings," says Ayoob.

Other results of the study reveal how super-sized many of our most popular foods have become:

Food/beverageYear introducedSize, oz. or fl. oz.2002 sizes, oz. or fl. oz.
Budweiser, Can193612.08.0, 12.0, 16.0, 24.0
Budweiser, Bottle19767.07.0, 12.0, 22.0, 40.0
Milk chocolate bar
Hershey's19080.61.6, 2.6, 4.0, 7.0, 8.0
Nestle Crunch19381.61.6, 2.8, 5.0
French Fries
Burger King19542.6 (Regular)2.6 (Small), 4.1 (Medium), 5.7 (Large), 6.9 (King)
McDonald's19552.42.4 (Small), 5.3 (Medium), 6.3 (Large), 7.1 (Supersize)
Hamburger, beef only1
McDonald's19551.61.6, 3.2, 4.0, 8.0
Howard Johnson's1970s3.55.0, 8.0
Hamburger sandwich, Burger King219543.94.4 (Hamburger), 6.0 (Whopper Jr.), 6.1 (Double Hamburger), 9.9 (Whopper), 12.6 (Double Whopper)
Soda, from fountain
Burger King195412.0 (Regular)12.0 (Kiddie), 16.0 (Small), 22.0 (Medium), 32.0 (Large), 42.0 (King)
16.0 (Large)
McDonald's19557.012.0 (Child), 16.0 (Small), 21.0 (Medium), 32.0 (Large), 42.0 (Supersize)
7-Eleven197312.0, 20.016.0 (Gulp), 32.0 (Big Gulp), 44.0 (Super Big Gulp), 64.0 (Double Gulp)
Soda, commercial
Coca Cola, bottle, can19166.58.0, 12.0, 20.0, 34.0

1Precooked beef
2Includes cooked beef, bun, vegetable and condiment. Does not include cheese.
All information obtained from manufacturers.
Copyright 2003 by the American Dietetic Association

"The fact that chocolate bars have grown more than 10 times since they were first introduced means that consumers need to pay even closer attention to how much of a food they are eating," says Ayoob. "Larger portions mean more calories."

The study's authors recommend dietetics professionals make every effort to emphasize for consumers the relationship between portion sizes, energy intake and weight management.

The Journal of the American Dietetic Association is the official research publication of the American Dietetic Association and is the premier peer-reviewed journal in the field of dietetics and nutrition.

Source: Journal of the American Dietetic Association