Portion Sizes Explained

Triathletes are pretty clued-up about numbers, from weights lifted to miles completed. But when it comes to keeping track of how many calories we consume, and the sizes of our portions, most of us are way off


Posted: 25 November 2009

Studies conducted at the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab in New York indicate that people underestimate the calorie content in a meal by about 20 per cent - and by as much as 50 per cent after a tough workout, which means athletes often consume twice as much as they think they do.  

Ellen Coleman, a dietician and one of the authors of Ultimate Sports Nutrition, lays part of the blame on the food industry, which has supersized almost everything. A 2005 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) also found that we may be treating ourselves to more than we should. It indicated that people typically eat 92 per cent of any food they serve themselves, so as portion sizes creep up, so does our weight. Here are a few strategies for curbing those excessive portions.

Add it up
Spend a week writing down what you eat; it's the best way to find out how much you consume. You may not realise how much snacking you do until you see it on paper.

Size isn't everything
Triathletes often think healthy foods are fine, whatever the serving size, but foods such as cheese and nuts, though very nutritious, are also highly calorific. Pasta and bread portions are also worth watching. "Athletes think they can eat carbohydrates with impunity," says Coleman, "but eating massive quantities of even low-fat foods can pile on the pounds." Vegetables are the exception: eating hefty amounts of spinach, peppers and carrots won't drive up your calorie count - just resist the temptation to drown them in fatty salad dressing.

Eat early
Never skip breakfast. Without it, your blood sugar plummets later on, inducing a raging hunger that makes it hard to moderate portion sizes. The same thing happens when you train after eating little during the day: 'recovery eating' becomes a blow-out. Eat early to avoid overindulging later.

Be size wise
Portion out your foods. "You lose touch with what you're eating if your hand's disappearing into a bag," says Coleman. Transfer snacks to a smaller bag and eat meals on small plates. The JAMA study also found that people ate 56 per cent more when they served meals in large bowls, because big dishes make generous portions appear smaller


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