Is it possible to create a well-balanced diet without paying attention to portion sizes?

No, portion sizes are critical for any well-balanced diet. In fact, portion sizes may be one of the most overlooked aspects of healthy eating. Most of us tend to think about portion size as a straightforward, cut-and-dried issue. A portion size can be too large, too small, or in the middle - and we assume that these three options are pretty much all there is to it. However, research studies on portion size make it clear that our experience of portion size is actually quite different from any simple scenario like the one described above. In our experience of eating, portion size is actually quite complicated.

Portion Size and "Value Negotiation"

A great way to summarize our real-life experience of portion size is to bring in a term that several researchers have used in their analysis of portion size and food selection. That term is "value negotiation." From a research standpoint, portion size always involves some value negotiation on our part. In our experience of eating, every portion size comes with trade-offs, and we are always trying to weigh the pros and cons of any sized portion. Portion size requires us to bargain with ourselves and to decide what counts as a good deal or a bad deal. For example, we might think that the amount of food in a "family-sized" bag is a bad deal in terms of nutrition but a great deal in terms of price. Or we might think that another food in the same "family-sized bag" is a great deal in terms of calories but a lousy deal in terms of taste. Whenever we are try to decide about a portion size in front of us, we end up negotiating with ourselves about these kinds of trade-offs between nutrition, taste, calories, price, and other factors.

Portion Size Expectations

To make the situation even more complicated, all of us have personal expectations about portion size. Based on our past experience, we develop individual expectations about a portion size and its value. Research findings show that we tend to pay special attention to the visual aspects of portions, including their immediate surroundings. For example, if we see a large amount of food in a large bowl, we expect that a very small amount of that food will not be very filling. However, if that same small amount of food were served in a much smaller bowl and we knew that we were going to consume all of it, our expectation would change and we would judge the amount to be more filling. Similarly, participants in one research study looked at one bowl of cereal with small cereal flakes and another bowl of cereal with large cereal flakes and decided that they would need to eat more of the cereal with small flakes if they wanted to be full. But because of their expectation, they ended up eating more calories from the bowl with the smaller flakes.

Food labeling and packaging also affect our expectations. If a product is labeled as "low calorie" or "low fat," we assume that we will need to eat more of it in order to feel full. The same goes for a product provided to us in a portion-controlled package (for example, cookies or chips in a 100-calorie prepackaged portion). In research studies, participants assume that these portion-controlled amounts are unlikely to be fully satisfying.

Studies also show that we take larger portions from larger packages; that we assume a need to go back for "seconds" when presented with a small plate at a salad bar or buffet; that we will order a larger size in a restaurant if we think that we are getting a much better deal in terms of price; and that we generally expect to feel dissatisfied by any food portion that looks too small.

Portion Sizes and Eating Habits

Our personal eating habits can also affect our portion size expectations. If we have always eaten a certain amount of food before feeling satisfied, we assume that off in the future, we will need to eat that same amount of food in order to feel satisfied. Similarly, if we have never felt satisfied with a certain amount of food, we assume that it can never be satisfying if we limit our consumption to that amount. And yet another example: if we usually eat something late in the evening, we expect to need something in the evening. While consistency in our eating habits can be very helpful in steadying our intake and balancing our digestive tract function, some eating habits can also get in the way of healthy eating if we become too close-minded about portion sizes or other aspects of our food approach.

Portion Size and Healthy Eating

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of our portion size expectations, however, are those expectations related to healthy eating. Many of us believe that health eating can never be a "win-win" situation with respect to portion size. In order to come up with acceptable portion sizes that will make healthy eating possible, we assume that there will be some trade-off that works against us. In other words, we expect to get a bad deal in some way or other. For example, in some research studies, participants say that they expect to be hungry when eating healthy. These participants looked upon healthy eating and food satisfaction as being mutually exclusive, and an important part of this viewpoint centered on portion size. In other studies, a delicious, calorie-appropriate food amounts were assumed to be possible on a healthy diet, but they were also assumed to cost more - not only in terms of dollars but in terms of hassle (including preparation and clean-up). Participants in some studies said that they expected to feel less satisfied on properly-sized servings of most healthy foods. And others said that moderate sized servings of healthy food might be just fine in terms of immediate satisfaction and fullness (satiety), but they expected these health food servings to leave them hungry after a few hours (lack of satiation).

Portion Sizes and WHFoods

At WHFoods, we are absolutely convinced that there is no need for you to make trade-offs in order to eat healthy. In fact, we cannot think of any life experience that offers more of a "win-win!" With our WHFoods approach to Healthy Eating, you should always expect the best: delicious food that is affordable and easy to make; satisfying portion sizes; a feeling of fullness that will last you until your next meal or snack; and health benefits that come from our Nutrient-Rich cooking methods and wide variety of featured foods. We realize that many people develop some negative expectations about healthy eating. But we believe that these expectations can change, once people experience the way that unique food tastes and textures and portion sizes can be brought together to make for a perfect fit in their lifestyle.

At WHFoods, we know that portion sizes are important, and we always provide you with very specific portion sizes in our recipes and meal plans. But if you are worried about getting short-changed on your portion sizes, just take a look at the portion sizes below in a single dinner that we developed for one of our Smart Menu eating plans: an appetizer with several tablespoons of hummus on fresh vegetable slices and a bowl of miso soup; five ounces of salmon with a maple Dijon mustard glaze; two and one half cups of cooked vegetables topped with one and one half tablespoons of sesame seeds and a Mediterranean dressing; and one half cup of cooked brown rice.

If we could wave a magic wand and make just one wish, it would be for everyone to experience just how much of a "win-win" situation that Healthy Eating can be. The reason we get so excited about our recipes and meal plans and daily menus is because we believe that with Healthy Eating there are no "bad deals" at all. You don't have to make discouraging trade-offs between nutrition, taste, portion size, calories, or price! A good place to get started on our website is with our Healthy Eating in 3 Easy Steps article.

For more on Great Healthy Eating Habits:

  1. Does Healthy Eating require cooking on a regular basis?
  2. Are grocery lists and organized food plans required for Health Eating?
  3. Does Healthy Eating require three meals each day?
  4. Are snacks a good thing or a bad thing for Healthy Eating?
  5. Does it matter if dinner is the largest meal of the day?
  6. How consistent does my diet have to be in order for me to stay healthy?
  7. Is Healthy Eating possible on a tight budget?
  8. Is it okay for me to "eat on the run?"
  9. Just how common is "eating on the run?"
  10. Problem 1 with "eating on the run"—getting distracted from the process of eating
  11. Problem 2 with "eating on the run"—eating too quickly for our body systems:george,421]
  12. References for "Is it okay to "eat on the run?"
  13. References for "Is it okay to "eat on the run?"


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