Portion control: How we’ve gone from plates to platters

If you haven’t noticed, there has been a major change in the size of the food portions we eat in the past 50 years, writes Martina Gallivan. Most of us are eating 30pc to 50pc more than we were in the 1970s.

Ultimately weight affects us all. We see hundreds of people in clinic who are either trying to lose weight, or who have lost weight in the past only to put it all back on within 12 months. Then there are those of us who find weight a constant struggle and battle with it for years.

You might not be aware, but most of the time we eat for different reasons, usually led by a trigger. Common triggers are, eating due to a stressful event. Or turning to food as an emotional crutch. Comfort eating or boredom eating. Each of us have different trigger points where food consumption is concerned. The latest obvious trigger being the so called “Covid stone” due to the lockdown period over the past few months.  

“Controlling your portions is the first step in being able to control your weight and ultimately your health”

As I was sitting down to dinner a while ago it struck me how over the years our eating habits have changed considerably in comparison to what they were in say the 1970s. Noticeably, in the quantities that we eat. Portion control has increased incrementally in the past 50 years or so and I believe it’s a major factor of the obesity epidemic we’re now facing.

We have supersized in just 50 years

We appear to have evolved from consuming normal size plates of food to platters of food. In the 1970s, the size of an average dinner plate was 25cm whereas now it is 31cm. Even from measuring my own plates at home from the 1970s compared to plates purchased in recent years the difference is unmistakable. And according to The British Medical Journal, the average wine glass capacity in the 1700s was 66ml in comparison to 417ml in 2017.

Nowadays we use mugs for tea and coffee instead of teacups as was common in the 1970s, with a capacity to hold 250mls. The average mug these days can hold 500mls or more. Soup bowls have increased in capacity from 300mls to 600mls. We have even managed to supersize cutlery. Bigger knives, forks, spoons etc.

With an increase in the size of our dishware also comes an increase in portion sizes. Meals are now 30pc to 50pc more than they were in the 1970s.

Of course, the more food that is presented to us the more we’re inclined to eat it. Very few of us actually leave food on the plate. But why is this? If you think about this aspect of feeling obliged to consume everything on your plate because you don’t want to waste it, it doesn’t make sense, does it?

I’ll give you an example. You are presented with a plate of food. In your own mind you know the portion is far greater than you require but yet you finish it because, psychologically you have already taken ownership of the plate. You feel personally responsible for it, therefore you must ensure every bite is consumed. After all it would be a shame to waste it. If you don’t eat everything on the plate, it’s liable to be thrown away.

We eat with our eyes

But if you consume everything on the plate even though you know you don’t need it you now treating yourself like a bin. Overconsuming and taking in excess calories has an inevitable consequence of increasing your weight. A classic example of this is seen in restaurants whereby food portions have become distorted in comparison with the 1970s.

If on the other hand you decide to take more control over your consumption there is no reason why you cannot start eating less by using a smaller plate. This also extends to using smaller wine glasses, cups and cutlery. We eat with our eyes therefore a smaller portion of food on a very large plate can sometimes look disappointing. On the other hand, if we were to use smaller plates our visual cues interpret this as being adequate, triggering leptin the hormone that creates the feeling of food satiety.

Your stomach is a relatively small muscular organ. It is capable of expanding and contracting. And because we’re human, we condition ourselves over a period of time to having a certain portion on the plate, and yet incrementally manage to increase portions without even registering its consequences. Food quantities in the past which satisfied us now seem inadequate and you end up eating larger quantities in order to feel satiated.

In society today with increased portion sizes, we have forgotten how overeating can create the consequences of weight gain along with a host of potential health issues.

My advice is to go back to the very basics of eating by becoming more aware of how much you are eating. Therefore, the next time you sit down to breakfast, lunch or dinner, take a look at the size of your dinnerware and ask yourself if you should reconsider investing in a smaller version.

And ultimately you can always ask the restaurant to give you a doggy bag! Controlling your portions is the first step in being able to control your weight and ultimately your health.

Martina Gallivan is a nutritionist and director of RK Cardiology Healthy Living Ltd. If you are interested in learning more about health and lifestyle medicine for you or your family please contact her at martina@roseville.ie or follow @drrobertkelly

Published: 1 September, 2020