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Portion sizes of some of your favorite foods have been getting bigger and bigger.
Ultraprocessed foods and beverages, including chocolate, french fries, fast-food hamburgers and soda, are being sold in sizes up to five times larger than when they were first introduced, according to a December 2021 study in the American Journal of Public Health. Ultraprocessed foods are industrial formulations that typically contain five or more ingredients, and may contain, for example, hydrogenated oils, dyes or flavor enhancers that are not found in other processed foods, according to the Nova food classification system designed by the Center for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition at University of São Paulo’s School of Public Health.
The original McDonald’s burger patty – from 1955 – had 1.6 ounces. While the original patty size has not changed, today the chain offers two 4-ounce patties in its Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese for a total of 8 ounces of beef in a single order. And the fast-food company introduced in 2020 a Double Big Mac burger with four patties and more than 700 calories.
If that calorie count gives you pause, consider Burger King’s triple Whopper with cheese, which has nearly 1,300 calories. “It’s enough calories for an entire day for some people,” registered dietitian and lead study author Lisa Young said.
Even though smaller sizes are still offered, the availability of larger beverage sizes has also increased. Coca-Cola drinks are now sold in different sizes ranging from 7.5 fluid ounces to 24 fluid ounces. The original bottle had 6.5 fluid ounces, according to the study.
“It’s no surprise so many of us are overweight because it is so easy to be that way,” said Young, who is also an adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University. “It is hard to stick to normal portions when you are bombarded with these ridiculous sizes.”
Consuming very large portions on a regular basis, beyond your individual calorie needs, can lead to obesity and its related health consequences including heart disease and Type 2 diabetes as well as other conditions such as sleep apnea, osteoarthritis and gallbladder disease. Some 74% of the US population is overweight or has obesity, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Food and beverage ingredients are cheap relative to other expenses, such as rent, staff, equipment, production and marketing, so it doesn’t cost manufacturers much to offer a bigger portion of food, Young explained.
“Consumers are happy because even though they pay a little more for a big portion, they get much more food. So, it appears like a win-win, except big portions are not good for your waistline,” Young said.
Food companies stress that customers can choose from a wide range of options.
“Hershey has always offered a wide variety of portioned sizes and more permissible options,” said Jeff Beckman, spokesperson for The Hershey Company, in response to the study’s findings, via email. “Over the years, we have expanded our offerings, including … small snack-size bars introduced in the 1970s and more recently, our many ‘thins’ offerings, which gives consumers a way to enjoy their favorite Hershey brands in portioned pieces.”
“By offering more drinks … in different packaging sizes, we are giving more choice to our consumers to pick beverages that fit their lifestyles and needs,” said Ann Moore, a spokesperson for The Coca-Cola Company.
Burger King and McDonald’s both say they offer a variety of portion sizes across their product portfolios and include nutrition information for menu items.
“When we tell our Guests ‘Have it Your Way’ – we mean it … and nutrition information for all menu items is readily accessible and easy to digest – our online nutrition tool allows Guests to search, filter and identify menu options quickly and easily,” a Burger King spokesperson said via email.
McDonald’s also offers a variety of portion sizes across its portfolio of choices to customers, according to a company statement emailed to CNN. “McDonald’s USA is committed to transparency and providing customers the information they need to make choices that are right for them.” The company posts calories on menu boards and provides ingredient and nutrition information on the company’s website, app and in-restaurant kiosks.
When you are served larger portions or purchase foods in larger sizes, you might assume that the amount you are getting is the amount that you should eat.
“We think (the amount we are given) is a reasonable amount because ‘this is what I bought’ or ‘this is what I was presented with,’” Young said.
This thinking puts you at risk for overriding your internal fullness cues, which intuitively help you determine when you’ve had enough food. In fact, when people are offered larger portions, they consistently consume more food and beverages than when offered smaller offerings, research has revealed. Psychologists call this overeating behavior the portion-size effect.
“If you have 100 calories of your favorite chocolate each day, nothing is going to happen,” Young said. “It’s when you have tremendous portions of meals and snacks and drinks … that can easily lead to weight gain. It’s why we have an obesity crisis in our country. You don’t have to look any further than these portion sizes of unhealthy foods.”
And the bigger the portion, the more calories, sodium, saturated fat and sugar you end up consuming, too.
Mastering portion control
Here are some tips to help you downsize your portions and improve your health:
Limit portions of ultraprocessed foods, which are some of the most common culprits when it comes to oversize portions, according to Young’s study.
Here are additional ways to combat portion distortion according to Young:
Chocolate: When possible, always buy the smallest size. “You can get the half-ounce Halloween size all year long,” Young said. If you buy a bigger size, treat yourself to one or two squares a day.
French fries: Get the smallest menu offering or share an order and get a vegetable as an additional side dish.
Soda: When you are out, get the smallest size available. If you are at home, pour the beverage in an 8-ounce glass – or if you have a 20-ounce tumbler, fill it halfway with ice.
Cereal: Avoid eating directly out of the box. Scoop cereal with a 1-cup measuring cup, then pour the cereal into a bowl. This can help you visualize how much 1 cup looks like.
Hamburgers: “Make that your meat for the day and make your dinner plant-based, like a quinoa bowl, a salad or a veggie bowl,” Young advised.
Potato chips: Single-serving packages are best for portion control. You can also use a measuring cup to portion out bigger bags, but be sure to put the bag away after you are done.
Bagels and muffins: “These things are tremendous; a typical bagel is 5 ounces, a typical muffin is 7 ounces,” Young said. Try cutting one in half and heat the leftovers in the toaster oven the next day.
Fill your plate with more fiber-rich foods, especially fruits and vegetables. They increase satiety and offer beneficial nutrients.
Order half portions at restaurants, especially with pasta dishes.
Don’t assume that a single bottle or bag is the amount you should consume. “A soda should be 8 ounces. If you have a quart-size soda, you are having four sodas,” Young said.
Still having trouble determining proper portion sizes? Consider these size equivalents as a visual guide:
Baseball: 1 cup fruits or vegetables; 1 cup cereal, pasta or rice
Hockey puck: 1⁄2 cup legumes, hummus, cooked oatmeal or grains, or tomato sauce
Deck of cards: 3 ounces salmon, chicken, or meat
4 dice: 1 ounce cheese
Cap on a 16-ounce water bottle: 1 teaspoon oil, gravy, sugar or honey
Golf ball: 1⁄4 cup nuts or seeds
Shot glass: 2 tablespoons oil or salad dressing
Dental floss container: 1 ounce chocolate or a cookie
Source: “Finally Full, Finally Slim” by Lisa Young
Lisa Drayer is a nutritionist, an author and a CNN health and nutrition contributor.