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Are You Underestimating Your Portions?

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Are You Underestimating Your Portions?

Do you ever feel like you are doing everything right and you still can’t lose weight? It may be that you are underestimating what you are eating.

Don’t feel bad, according to research studies, 80% of us underestimate our food intake and that includes dietitians. This is easy to do because portion sizes have gotten so large that our estimate of a cup of rice or 3 ounces of meat is still much larger than reality. One study done at St. Luke-Roosevelt Hospital Obesity Research Center found that participants were estimating that they were eating around 1,000 calories each day when in fact they were actually eating 2,000 calories. Wow!

This was very apparent to me when I worked in private practice. I had plastic food models to show people what a portion size looks like and they always laughed and thought it was a joke. They would say things like, “yeah right…I eat three times that amount” or “are you kidding?” No joke my friends, these portion sizes are real and they look very small compared to what you might estimate a cup to look like. Read our article on Portion Sizes for Kids to learn more about how to serve your family.

Not only are we estimating our portions incorrectly, we also do a lot of unconscious eating throughout the day and we underestimate this as well. I tested myself one time with this concept. When I worked in a small hospital in California we always had junk food around. There was a bowl of miniature Hershey’s chocolates in the manager’s office and there were always donuts, cookies, and Sees candies that various medical supply reps and families would bring in. I guessed that I was eating a couple of the chocolates and perhaps a cookie during the day. I really thought I was eating much less than my coworkers. After all, I was the dietitian and I wanted to set an example of enjoying a little but not going overboard. I put myself to the test and decided to mark down on a sheet of paper each time I ate some junk food.

The results surprised me. By the end of a typical day I had eaten 4 Hershey miniatures, 2 mints, 4 shortbread cookies, and 3 Sees candies. This adds up to a grand total of 596 calories and 35 grams of fat. Yikes! It is easy to nibble on these little treats unconsciously throughout the day. However, they add up fast and can contribute to weight gain quickly. If you would have asked me how much I was eating I wouldn’t have guessed it was that much.

So what is the solution for this “underestimating what we eat” problem? For starters, measure your food in real measuring cups for a week. Get a feel for what a cup of rice looks like on your plate. An easy way to do this is to use your cup measuring cup as a scoop for rice, and pasta. They work well as a serving spoon. This will let you know if your food estimates are close or if they are way out in left field. This doesn’t mean you have to weigh your food for the rest of your life. It’s just time to make sure that your estimates are on the right track.

The second solution is to keep a detailed food journal. This is the best way to be accountable to your self and to bring any unconscious nibbling to the forefront. Research shows that people who keep food records achieve their weight loss goals more effectively. Get a small notepad and keep track for a week and see if you learn anything new about your eating habits.

For more tips, read How to Accomplish Your Health Goals Part 1 and Part 2.

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About the Author

Picture of Meri Raffetto, RD, LDN

Meri Raffetto, RD, LDN

Meri is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist and specializes in weight management and heart disease. With more than 10 years experience in nutrition counseling has helped people make positive lifestyle changes to improve their health. Since becoming a dietitian, she has been involved with nutrition research studies and has worked in many specialized areas of nutrition such as weight management, heart disease, alcohol recovery, and eating disorders. She has provided nutrition counseling for professional athletes training at Titan Sports Performance Center in Santa Barbara, CA and has developed nutrition programs and education manuals for hospitals, private businesses, and corporate wellness. Additionally, Meri publishes a monthly newsletter for and has contributed articles to Santa Barbara Fitness Magazine and Santa Barbara News Press' Woman Magazine. She has been interviewed by multiple radio shows and featured in Healthy Living Magazine and the Chicago Tribune. She lives with her husband in Temecula, CA where she enjoys hiking, reading, writing, occasional rock climbing, and, of course, cooking!

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