Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Do We Really Need to Eat All That?

How you can prevent portion distortion.

Key points

  • Average daily consumption has increased by 200 calories.
  • Fast-food and restaurant meals usually are "super-sized."
  • Without awareness, homemade meals have increased in size as well.
  • It's not hard to decrease portion sizes without feeling deprived

Since the 1970s the total U.S. food supply provides an extra 500 calories per person per day. Unfortunately, we’ve been consuming many of those extra calories. In a 15 year period, average daily calorie consumption has grown by 200 calories for adults while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that today’s kids consume 150 more calories. According to one recent study, most of the extra calories resulted from larger portions rather than the type of food consumed. If you’re concerned about your children’s weight (or your own weight) controlling portion size is essential.

It’s easy to recognize giant portions when eating out, especially when the fast-food restaurant encourages you to “super-size” the meal. But don’t just blame McDonald's, even upscale restaurants typically serve more food than you’d need, and that’s without the bread that they bring to the table.

Super-sizing is less obvious when it occurs at home. Twenty-five years ago a store-bought bagel was three inches in diameter and had about 150 calories. Now a typical bagel is about six inches across and has 350 calories. One study found that homemade cheeseburgers increased from 333 calories to 590 calories while dessert portions grew by 55 calories over a 20-year interval. Larger portions have snuck up on us without awareness so how can we combat portion distortion?

Edward Abramson, PhD
Source: Edward Abramson, PhD

A Penn State study demonstrated that most of us are poor judges of portion size. Diners were served either a standard portion of pasta or one that was one and a half times as large. Diners who got the large portion weren’t aware that they’d consumed an extra 172 calories.

The bad news is that we’ve gotten accustomed to larger portions. The good news is that, since we’re not accurate judges of portion sizes, it should be painless to gradually decrease their size. Here are a few suggestions to help:

1. Plate size matters. In one study of ice cream consumption, adults were given either a medium-sized bowl (17 oz) or a larger, 34 oz bowl. They could eat as much ice cream as they wanted. Not surprisingly, using the big bowls resulted in 31 percent more ice cream consumed for an extra 127 calories.

2. Most of the enjoyment of calorically dense treats (think ice cream) comes from the first few bites. If you buy it by the half-gallon, there’s no marker signifying that you’ve had enough to feel satisfied. On the other hand, buying ice cream sandwiches, pops, cones or other single-serving treats clearly identifies portion size.

3. If you’re eating out with your spouse or partner, order the main meal along with an extra salad and plate. Divide the entrée into two plates, have your salad, eat slowly and it’s likely that you’ll feel satisfied.

If we pay attention we can enjoy the meal and feel satisfied without those 200 extra calories.


Abramson, E. (2011). It's NOT Just Baby Fat! Lafayette, CA, Bodega Books.

More from Edward Abramson Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Edward Abramson Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today