Portion Sizes Over The Years

Portion Sizes Through The Years | Bulu Box - sample superior vitamins and supplements
Bigger is better seems to be the philosophy our culture has become accustomed to, which is why it’s not surprising that the amount of food we eat has also become bigger, but this is where it’s not better.  Now that we’re eating about 23-60% more with each portion than 20 years ago, it’s no wonder that the number of obese individuals is doubled from where it was 20 years ago also.

Serving Size and Portion Size – Is there a difference?
Yes, and this is where the difference has increased over the years.  A serving is the amount of food that is recommended and what nutritional information is based on, which hasn’t necessarily increased over the years.  However, a portion is the amount of food that you choose to eat at any one time, or that is served to you, and may be more or less than a serving.

Portion sizes are what have increased at fast food restaurants, sit-down restaurants, snacks, and even at-home meals.  For example, according to a study conducted by researchers at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, between 1977 and 1996, hamburgers have expanded by 23%, a plate of Mexican food is 27% bigger, soft drinks have increased in size by 52%, and snacks are 60% larger.  And when we’re eating these portions out, we’re serving these “normal” portions at home, too.

It’s what is being served to us, but it’s also what consumers want because of the “value size,” or getting more for the buck – a size larger for only 10 cents more?!  That’s a deal, right?!

30 Years Ago vs. Today
Here are a few examples of the increased calories from larger portions of common food, drink or snack items that the average American consumes daily.

Coffee – 30 years ago, when someone ordered a “cup of coffee” that’s exactly what they received – 8 ounces of coffee with some cream and sugar to equal about 45 calories.  Now a typical coffee ordered is a Grande size with added sugars and whip to equal 330 calories.

Soda – an 8 ounce bottle of soda came in around 100 calories while a 20 ounce bottle of soda typically bought today is 242 calories.  Now, consider the “value” of a 42 ounce cup that comes in around the 500 calorie range.

Two slices of pizza – increasing in size from about 3 inches wide to 5-6 inches wide per slice, two pizza slices went from about 500 calories to 850.

Movie theater popcorn – the once one-size movie theater container that served 5 cups of popcorn for 270 calories has become the size small of today and is usually bypassed for the tub of popcorn that contains 11 cups at 630 calories.

Hamburger – portion sizes offered by fast-food chains are now two to five times larger than they were when first introduced.  A typical cheeseburger used to be around 333 calories, where one is now 590 calories.

Chicken Caesar Saladnot that a Caesar salad was ever considered “healthy,” but when it was 1.5 cups in size and around 390 calories, it wasn’t a bad option.  Now, a typical portion is 3.5 cups and 790 calories.

Muffin – a 1.5 ounce muffin came in around 210 calories for a sweet dessert or snack, where today it rings in at 500 calories at the 4 ounce size.

Cookiea plate of cookies with milk was easier to handle when each cookie was about 1.5 inches in diameter and only 55 calories each.  Now, we’re used to cookies that are 3.5 inches wide and 275 calories.

Bagela 3 inch bagel from the ‘70’s was a great option for a snack or breakfast when it was considered one serving of bread at 140 calories.  Bagels today are 5-6 inches in diameter and considered 3 servings of bread at 350 calories.

Cheesecake – 30 years ago, you could’ve had your cake and eaten it too when a regular cheesecake served was 3 ounces and 260 calories.  However, now cheesecake is served as a 7 ounce, thick slice and adds 640 calories as a cap to your meal.

How to Downsize the Upsize
The portions aren’t going to decrease when you’re out being served, so if you want to keep yourself in check, you have to be prepared to ask for a to-go box and divide up your meal straight away since research has shown that you are bound to eat about 30% more if it’s in front of you.

Here are some everyday comparisons to help you figure out your serving sizes:

  • A teaspoon of margarine is the size of one dice.
  • Three ounces of meat is the size of a deck of cards.
  • One cup of pasta is the size of a baseball.
  • An ounce and a half of cheese is the size of four stacked dice.
  • One-half cup of fresh fruit is the size of a tennis ball.

To overcome portion distortion and to downsize your helpings, try these tips:

  • Eat from a plate, not a package, so you know how much you eat.
  • Use smaller dishes, such as a lunch plate for your dinner, so less looks like more on your plate.
  • When presented with a “value size” option, think in terms of health, not money.  Is that upsize of 150 calories of soda really worth 10 cents more?
  • Add in more vegetables and fruits so your food volume is still high but your calorie load will remain low if you are feeling like you’re not getting enough food in your portions – hey, we’re used to large portions, right?




Compiled using information from the following sources:

ABC News, “Portion Sizes Have Grown A Lot.” http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/storynew?id=129685&page=1

Divine Caroline, “Portion Size, Then vs. Now.” http://www.divinecaroline.com/self/wellness/portion-size-then-vs-now

Eat Right, “Serving Size vs. Portion Size – Is There a Difference?” http://www.eatright.org/Public/content.aspx?id=4294967941

National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, Obesity Education Initiative. Portion Distortion slides: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/about/oei/index.htm


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Rena Roark, CHC, CPFT, is a Certified Health Coach and Certified Personal Fitness Trainer and owner of Charge Up Health and Fitness, LLC.  She works with individuals and group clients as a health and fitness coach to offer support and guidance for their health goals through a holistic look at their lives, helping to find balance between exercise, diet, career, and relationships.  Providing accountability and motivation, she can help reduce stress, increase energy and self-confidence, and ultimately help individuals work towards the best version of them.

If you are interested in learning more about how Rena can help support you in your health goals, contact Rena at rena@chargeupcoaching.com or visit Charge Up Health and Fitness on Facebook.



Please be aware that this article is not a diagnosis, prescription or recommendation for any individual.  Before you start a new exercise or food program, you should always talk it over with your doctor. He or she may have specific recommendations — or warnings — depending on your health and the other medicines you take.

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