Skinny Daily Post


What do you consider to be a portion? We discuss this over and over and over, in many contexts, from what we serve ourselves to what others serve us, and how foods are packaged. Thank goodness someone is studying all this!

In the June issue of Observer, a publication of the Association for Psychological Science, there’s a discussion of the psychology of American’s portion choices.

In France, for example, individual containers of yogurt are about half the size of those in the US. Yet, everyone – French or American – considers a single container to be a serving.

Researchers put out plates and bowls of treats, and controlled the serving sizes either by cutting the treats into smaller pieces, or by varying the size of the serving spoon. Invariably, people ate more when treats like donuts were served whole, and when the larger serving spoons were used. One unit.

These psychologists call it ‘unit bias.’ We eat just one, no matter what size it is.

Think about it. Ice cream can be purchased in those cute little half-cup containers, yet many of us consider the pint to be a single serving. Same thing with purchased cakes. Cupcakes are wonderful little serving units, but so are Entenman’s cakes, which range from 8-inch tube size to 7 by 10 sheets [for those of you in other parts of the world, Entenman’s is a local commercial bakery that makes quite good cakes and donuts in large quanitities].

There’s a restaurant near my house that has quite good food. Order pasta, and they’ll cook at least a half pound for you, enough to feed 4-6 people. Ask them for half of that, and they’ll oblige, but you’re still left with an enormous serving.

So, all in all, until [or unless!] we figure out – both on a personal level and as a society – what constitutes ‘a portion,’ offering the ‘right amount’ might go a long way in helping us eat less. And if you’re REALLY hungry or active, eat two servings!

7 thoughts on “The psychology of portion size

  1. m.a. says:

    you mean a pint of ice cream is NOT a serving?


    who knew?


  2. Jane says:

    folks – meet my real-life sister. she posted the previous comment. I could tell you LOTS of stories, but since this IS the internet, after all, I’ll let her speak for herself!

  3. Zentient says:

    Dear all,

    A pint? What about a half gallon and a spoon? I used to love letting a carton melt around the edges, eating my way to the center. The only problem is there are 16 servings in a half gallon! I now buy only preportioned ice cream.

    “Portion Teller” is a great book that gives a timeline of expanding portions in US food culture. I noticed with some old green dishes I have, plates, bowls and cups are small, in line with proper portion amounts. So in our culture we have gone backwards on eating right amounts to a new place of high quantity, low quality. Shelf life rules.

    I am working on ingraining into my brain what a half cup looks and “feels” like since it is a serving of a lot of fruits and vegetables, ice cream and pudding, pasta and rice, etc. It gives a good baseline of reference. I don’t want to have to rely on formal measuring all the time. Like all things to do with eating, portion control can be a best friend (make peace with eating) or worst enemy (measuring portions becomes an obsession).

    It is a bit sad to take inventory of packaged foods that say there are 3 or 4 portions in them when they are clearly designed to be eaten in one sitting. Check out your local convenient store! And so called health foods as well. We will get what we keep buying from corporate America, and it doesn’t matter if it’s healthy or not.

    Jane, I like using “right amount” as you said. The Goldilocks Way, yeah that’s it!


  4. london slimmer says:

    Portion control is very important for slimming – but for me, not for veggies. I like to eat large portions and one of the things that seems my diet on track is eating small portions of the higher-calorie stuff, together with huge amounts of steamed, raw or roasted veg. That way, you get the feeling of eating a lot without blowing the calorie bank. I eat, on average, 3 or 4 different veggies with every meal (much easier to do if you can shop at the farmers’ market and don’t have to rely on skanky overpriced supermarket veggies). I even asked my GP if she thought it was possible to overeat veggies and her answer was a very resounding NO – especially not if you eat a wide variety! Eating that many veggies keeps me healthy, full and satisfied and I can really recommend it if you like to eat a lot, but don’t want to regain weight.

  5. susan says:

    I find portion sizes at restaurants and stores so annoying. Recently at the Olive Garden, a lunch-sized portion of one of their “healthy” pasta dishes fed me for FOUR MEALS. I eat my dinner on the salad plates from my dinnerware set, and use a custard bowl for yogurt & cereal.

  6. Pam says:

    Do you ever watch old movies? Look at the size of the cocktail glasses in a Thin Man movie – about 1/3 to 1/4 the size of what we serve now. I find I have to measure portions of everything except vegetables fairly regularly or my portions creep up (sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised to find my portion estimate was on the small side!)

  7. amextcica says:

    What WordPress theme do you use?

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