STEPtember is complete,
with over 86 million steps
and all states participating.
Check out who this year's
prize winners are.
More »

Football season is well
underway, as are many
unhealthy meals and snacks.
Enjoy these healthy twists
on tailgating recipes.
More »

Mindfulness during the Holidays
October 2011  

Managing Increased Portion Sizes and Mindless Eating

As we approach the holiday season, the long-time unanswered question still remains, Why do I continue to gain weight year after year? The simple answer is the imbalance between calories in and calories out. Many times we find ourselves in a pattern of mindless eating, making food-related decisions in a highly distracting environment1. Wansink’s research found that people underestimate the number of food decisions made each day and environmental cues can unknowingly influence these decisions. The environment can be our friend and our foe—determining what food to eat, when to start and stop eating, or how much to eat. Environmental distractions, such as music, television, or dining with others, can influence our ability to react to cues of fullness2.

This brings us to portion control, a learned technique that can be difficult to master considering the vast number of environmental cues we are exposed to on a daily basis3. Nonetheless, it’s an important skill to learn as successful participants in the National Weight Control Registry lose weight and maintain weight loss through the use of portion control.

Research has shown that the more food we are served, the more calories we are likely to consume3. A study conducted by Rolls et. al. found that participants consumed 30% more calories when offered a larger portion of food, regardless of the serving method, as compared to those offered the smallest portion.

You may hear the words serving size and portion size being used interchangeably, however, it is important to decipher their differences because they can have very different meanings.

  • Serving: a standardized unit of measuring foods, such as a cup or an ounce that is used in creating dietary guidelines for consumers3
  • Portion: the amount of food or beverage that a person actually chooses to consume or that is served to them in a restaurant.

A portion is generally larger than a serving and could be two or more servings if, for example, you eat an entire bag of potato chips. Most people assume the amount of food served to them is one serving; however, that’s usually not the case.

Think about the last time you went to the movie theater. Did you order popcorn? What size did you order? Was it topped with butter? If you’re like many moviegoers, popcorn is a necessity. Today’s average movie theater medium-sized popcorn is 16 cups and provides 900 calories without butter3. Top the fluffy yellow kernels with butter and you’ve added approximately 300 calories to your snack. Looking back 25 years ago, the amount of popcorn in an average movie theater-sized order has increased by 11 cups. Popcorn is one of many foods that has drastically increased in portion size over the years. Yet it can still be incorporated into a healthful diet as long as portion control is the cornerstone.

In Dr. Barbara Rolls’ book, Volumetrics Eating Plan, she provides techniques for feeling satiated from eating fewer calories4. Rolls found that participants who ate soup for an appetizer consumed 20% fewer calories during their meal than those who only ate a casserole that contained the same ingredients as were in the soup. The plan is based on eating a larger volume of less energy-dense foods. Energy density is the number of calories in a given weight of food. Foods that have lower energy density, such as grapes, are more filling and satisfying due to their higher water content as compared to foods with higher energy density, like raisins.

How can you incorporate this model into your daily food intake? Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Eat a broth-based soup or salad before eating the main course
  • Top pizza with vegetables
  • Fill a sandwich with vegetables in addition to the protein source
  • Eat fruit for dessert



1 Wansink B, Sobal J. Mindless eating: The 200 daily food decisions we overlook. Environment and Behavior. 39(1) 106-123.
2 Smith JM and Ditschun TL. Controlling satiety: How environmental factors influence food intake. Trends in Food Science & Technology. 2009. 271-277.
3 Neithercott T. Pump up the volume. Diabetes Forecast. 2010.
4 Kruskall LJ. Portion distortion: Sizing up food servings. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal. 2006.