What Is Portion Distortion: Examples and Solutions

Written by: Anugraha Joseph- BA (Psychology)

Last updated date : June,  28, 2022

A portion is the amount of food a person eats in a single meal or a snack. This amount has steadily increased over the years, especially in developed countries. Portion distortion, therefore, refers to the increase in the amount of food people think is normal to eat in a single meal. Here are a couple of examples of portion distortion: restaurants often serve more in a single plate of a food item than they did twenty years ago. Your favourite chocolate brand has a habit of bringing out bigger and bigger bars. This article explains portion distortion, how it occurs, why it is concerning, and what you can do to deal with it.

First, we will need to differentiate between a serving and a portion. A serving is a fixed and measured amount of food, like a slice of bread or a cup (approximately 250 ml) of milk. A portion of food may contain multiple servings. For example, your breakfast, which is a single portion, may have multiple servings, like four slices of bread and an egg.

Chapter 1:

What Is It, and Why Does It Happen?

Now to discuss portion distortion. Have you ever felt that your eating patterns were changing? You may have noticed that sometimes you have to eat more than before to feel full or satisfied. This can even become a pattern. It may get to the point where you may be piling twice the amount of food on your plate. But to you, it looks like the normal amount, because to your stomach, it has become your normal portion! This is an example of how portion distortion happens. You start to see the amount of food on your plate differently.

Some more examples of portion distortion may be helpful. Over the past few decades, it has become increasingly common to find bigger packs of snacks in stores: chips, biscuits, munchies and so on. Fast food like burgers and pizzas are also available in bigger and more loaded (more cheese, more toppings) versions. When food in stores and restaurants comes in bigger packs or plates, research shows that we also tend to eat more. 

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Chapter 2:

Why Portion Distortion Is Harmful

Here, we will see examples of portion distortion and how they affect our bodies.

If everything we’ve said so far sounds problematic, that’s because it is. Portion distortion can lead to problem patterns in eating, obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

In addition to the bigger portion sizes, the portions themselves are also more calorie-rich. So it’s easy to see why portion distortion can cause a lot of trouble for someone trying to stay healthy.

Here’s another way portion distortion can be a problem. Portion distortion affects how you feel full. The normal way you feel full is this: your tummy sends a signal to your brain. As you eat and your stomach fills up, your body itself tells you, “That’s enough food now, I’m done.”

With portion distortion, though, your eyes and mind tell you how much you should eat. If the amount of food looks normal to you, you just eat it. The signals from your stomach don’t play much of a role anymore. Again, this means that you may end up eating more than your body needs. Now we all do this once in a while, but making a habit of doing this means you may put on unwanted weight.

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Chapter 3:

Tips to Keep Portion Sizes Healthy

Mindful Eating: Practise being mindful of how full you feel as you eat. This stops you from finishing an oversized portion simply because that’s what is in front of you.

Avoid the Supersized: Just don’t buy any meal that’s supersized when you’re eating out. Even if you do, have half of the meal now and half later.

Use Smaller Plates: This way, you can trick your brain into thinking you’re eating a full plate. Use smaller sized plates, especially when eating at home.

Snacking: Take a small portion of the snack (for example, chips) into a bowl instead of taking the whole pack. Snacking too much without realising it is one of the main examples of portion distortion.

Eat Healthy Foods That Make You Feel Full For Longer: Proteins, whole grains, vegetables and fruits keep you feeling full for longer, because fibers and protein take longer to digest. This will help you to resist snacking, and also stop you from getting so hungry that you overeat.

While Shopping: While at the grocery store to do your weekend shopping, don’t just look for bigger, cheaper packs of food. Pause and think if you really want to buy that much of the salty snack. Maybe get a pack of peanuts or raisins instead.

In the end, it doesn’t take a lot to counter portion distortion. A little extra care can mean a lot of benefits for you as you avoid the health risks that come with portion distortion.

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Chapter 4:

The Opposite of Portion Distortion

We’ve already seen that portion distortion means perceiving a larger amount of food to be normal as you eat it. Some people, however, have the opposite problem. They overestimate the amount of food they’re having. That is, they feel even a normal-sized portion to be oversized and end up eating less food than they need.

This variety of distortion is often seen in people with eating disorders like anorexia nervosa. In such disorders, people starve themselves to stay thin. This can be just as unhealthy as overeating, only in different ways. The reason for this type of distortion can be body image issues, where a person thinks of themselves as being bigger or more heavy than they are. Such people would be overly obsessive about the amount of food they eat.

If you think this applies to you, here are some tips that might help you.

To Avoid Eating Too Little

Listen to Your Body: Have three meals a day, or two if you’re following some kind of a diet plan recommended by your doctor. Eat till you feel full. Try and relax instead of worrying about the calories that are going into your body. If you feel hungry all the time and you’re losing weight a lot, it may be because your body needs more food than you’re giving it right now.

Eat Healthy: Go with your instinct to avoid food that is fattening like sweet and fried foods. Keep them for only occasional treats, while keeping most of your diet balanced: protein, vegetables and fruits. These will give you energy while not stuffing you with the extra calories. They will also provide your body with all the vitamins and minerals it needs. Win-win!

Manage Anxiety: Find resources that help you manage your anxiety about body image and food. Use resources online like articles and courses. Rely on music and your hobbies. Exercise. And don’t hesitate to get professional help if you need it.

No matter the kind of portion distortion, eating too much or too little is unhealthy for you. It’s always best to be balanced, both in how we see food and how we eat. We hope this article will help you achieve that balance. Happy Eating!

If you’d like to know more about portion distortion or healthy eating in general, here are some articles that you might find informative: Portion Size Obsessions: Stop Focusing on Meal Size, Portion Size Obsessions: Stop Focusing on Meal Size, Rigid Eating and Inflexible Food Rules and How to Manage It. Or you could check out our course on Body Image Concerns.