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Portion distortion: People not watching how much they eat

Registered Dietitian Randy Grabill remembers when the first McDonald’s came to Altoona during his childhood.

“There were little hamburgers, little fries and a small drink. Over the years, the hamburgers and fires increased, and increased and gradually you extrapolate that to what you’re eating at home. You think it’s a normal portion but it’s not,” said Grabill who works as a licensed dietitian at UPMC Altoona. “It’s portion distortion. What we once thought of as normal portions are now minuscule.”

People in their 20s and 30s don’t have a memory of smaller plates and cereal bowls popular in the 1950s and 1960s, he said.

“We’re a culture of over-eaters,” Grabill said. He and Libby Mills, national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, agree people confuse serving size and a portion size. A serving size is listed on a food product label while a portion size is what an individual chooses to eat.

“Our over-sized eating of restaurant and processed foods has changed our ideas of what the right amount of food for us looks like,” Mills said. “People are confused by the difference between a portion and serving sizes of food.”

Grabill calls it a “disconnect” in people’s minds.

“Most often, what someone eats is more than a serving size and that’s why there is an epidemic of obesity in this country,” he said.

‘Portions are how much food we choose to eat,” Mills said. “People are eating too many calories and too many calories from the wrong food groups. This is adding up to extra pounds when they step on the scale and causing concern that people aren’t getting enough of the right nutrients.”

For example, Grabill said, on a cereal box, the serving size is 3/4 of a cup, but in reality people fill a large bowl and it contains several cups of cereal.

“The food labeling industry has tried to do better and they have gotten better as to reflecting what a realistic serving size should be,” he said.

“Restaurant servings are huge,” said Heather Aardema, a functional nutrition educator. “For eating out I recommend taking a quick look at the menu ahead of time (online) and deciding what you’re going to order before you get to the restaurant and are famished. Once you’re at the restaurant and ordering ask the waiter to split the meal in the kitchen and put half in a to-go container that comes out with your food. The beauty here is that you don’t have to rely on willpower to not pick at what’s left on your plate until the waiter comes and asks if you’d like your bill.”

To combat “portion distortion,” Grabill recommends eating slowly and reducing the quantity of food eaten.

“Even if you cut your portion size a bit each day — fewer bites per day, your appetite probably wouldn’t notice,” he said. “If you save 100 calories a day, every day for 30 days, that’s saving 3,000 calories a month. Do it for a year, that’s 36,000 calories you’ve saved. It’s analogous to saving a nickel and dime here and there putting your pocket change at the end of each day into a jar. By the end of a year, that will add up. Small changes made over a long time make big differences.”

When it comes to eating, he said, changing eating behaviors is more helpful than dieting and deprivation.

“I tell people not to demonize food. Moderation is key,” he said. It’s also more realistic to transition to eating smaller amounts. Contributing factors to over-eating are eating too fast and performing other tasks while eating.

Grabill has been eating opposite-handed for about 10 years.

“It automatically slows me down. And, after doing it for 10 years, I’ve gotten better but if I pick up speed I notice it and it becomes conscious. It re-directs me to eat more slowly.”

Eating more slowly is helpful because it takes the brain 20 minutes to recognize or “catch up” to the stomach’s feeling of fullness.

Aardema agrees and offers these tips:

n Before picking up the fork, pause and share thanks.

n Use positive affirmations to help us listen to the signals our body is giving us.

n Pour a serving into a small bowl and put the food away to make serving more less tempting.

n Add greater quantities of non-starchy vegetables; vegetables should comprise the greatest volume on the plate.

Grabill said it is also helpful to see high-carbohydrate foods, like pasta, as a side dish instead of the main dish. A lean portion of fish or chicken, a large salad and a small dish of pasta is a healthier balance than a large plate of pasta.

Aardema, of Wheat Ridge, Colorado, agrees that many people eat without thinking and a key is increased awareness. Pausing before picking up a fork helps.

“Most of us are distracted when we’re eating. We’re on autopilot (looking at a screen, driving, etc.) and unaware of the amount of food we’re consuming. It’s about becoming aware and appreciative of the foods we’re choosing to nourish our bodies, minds and spirits. When we eat on autopilot we’re likely not absorbing and digesting our foods well because we’re in a state of fight or flight. By slowing down, taking deep breaths and feeling gratitude we can turn on our parasympathetic system which is known as rest and digest.”

Give thanks for the person who made the meal, for something wonderful that happened during the day, she said because by “pausing we become more mindful of the experience and aren’t at as much risk for eating on autopilot. More ways to become aware … intentionally notice colors, texture and smell before taking a bite, then chew and really tasting the food.”

Additionally, she recommends body scans — checking in with your body — to help find out if eating continues due to hunger or “if we’re eating just for the sake of eating.” She said the Confucian teaching, “Hara hachi bun me,” which translates to “eating until you are 8 out of 10 parts full” also helps increase mindfulness.

“‘Hara hachi bun me’ is the idea of not eating until you’re stuffed, to the point of unbuttoning your pants, feeling uncomfortable. It’s the idea that we want to be pleasantly satiated, eating just enough so that we have energy to take on the day, go for a walk, get some fresh air, fall into flow. It’s the difference between wanting to take a nap after eating or veg in-front of the TV or diving into a project that allows us to flourish,” she said.

Staff writer Patt Keith is at 949-7030.

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