Portion Perceptions


Since part of getting back into the swing of things this year meant watching what (and how much and when) I eat, I’ve been paying more attention to labels so that the info I’m entering into MyFitnessPal.com is as accurate as possible.

And while I always knew, and understood, the idea that we eat with our eyes as well as our mouths, it really hit home over these first two weeks with my occasional afternoon snack of chips and queso.

One week we had the large, restaurant-style chips in the house and a portion of those is approximately 7 chips. The next week, having run out of the larger chips (they were left over from holiday entertaining and snacking), I ended up buying the smaller bite-sized rounds.

Imagine my surprise when the same calorie count (140, for the curious) translated to 24 round chips.

Why is this relevant? Well, while quality should always trump quantity, sometimes the hand-to-mouth comfort of larger portions makes us feel better than the righteousness of a smaller portion. In this case, though, the portions are equal, it’s the perception of the many pieces in one versus the few in the other.

(Yes, there’s plenty to be said on meeting emotional needs with food–this isn’t a post about that and I sympathize with those in Overeaters Anonymous who struggle with just this issue.)

In fact, 24 of the rounds almost felt like too much. I’ve even been known to only have 12 (yes, I counted) and been perfectly satisfied. But there’s very little chance that I would have settled for only 3.5 of the larger chips. I mean, come on, would you?


Tortilla Chip Comparison--big triangles vs little rounds

Have you ever heard the phrase ‘your eyes are bigger than your stomach’?

It’s not your eyes that are the problem, it’s your mind. Taking the chip example and putting into dinner mode, think about the size of  your average dinner plate: 10+ inches.

Now place a deck of cards (for meat/protein), a 1 cup measure (veggies) and a 1/2-cup measure (grains or potatoes) on it.

Swap out that whopper of a dinner dish for the smaller salad plate (8 inches) and place the same representations onto the plate.

10.5 inch dinner plate with portion representations 8 inch salad plate with portion representations

The dinner plate on the left looks positively naked while the salad plate is full. And it’s not unusual to feel short-changed with a small item on a large plate. That perception of being deprived or “gypped”  by a near-empty plate is what leads to loading up double portions or going back for seconds. And soon a habit is formed that a 12 oz steak is a single portion (not more than 2!) or that if you’re plate isn’t filled you won’t be full.

Switch to a smaller plate, though, and a lot of those habits are easier to break.

We still keep our dinner plates around, of course. They’re great for holidays when a little indulging is okay. When you’re having a cookout they’re great for serving kebabs or acting as serving dishes for smaller dinners. Or under a soup-bowl to hold a slice of bread or corn muffin.

But we don’t use them very often for dinner and we don’t miss them, then, either.