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How much is too much?

Carol J.G. Ward (The Bergen Record) -- Portion control is perhaps the most important part of eating right.

It's also the trickiest.

What is a portion, anyway? And why should you care?

The answers may surprise you.

For our purposes, we'll define a portion as the serving sizes recommended by the Food Guide Pyramid, the blueprint for healthful eating. It's not a rigid prescription, but a general guide that lets you choose foods based on your needs and dietary guidelines.

The emphasis is on balance as the foundation of a healthful diet.

The pyramid calls for eating a variety of foods to get the nutrients you need, and at the same time consuming the right amount of calories to maintain a healthy weight.

It also defines portion sizes for each food group. The suggested amounts may be smaller than you think, which is why they add up quickly and why portion control may not be an easy task.

For example, that eight-ounce steak you had for supper last night would fulfill your meat servings for the whole day.

And consider this: One-half cup of spaghetti equals one serving from the grains group. Of course, no one is going to eat one-half cup of spaghetti, but a cup might seem a reasonable portion. The next time you order pasta in a restaurant, take a look at the amount of it on the plate. It's probably closer to three or four cups.

One of the keys to successfully managing portion control is to learn how to be satisfied while eating in moderation.

Here are a few suggestions:

Try to fill up on high-fiber, low-fat foods. Serving for serving, whole-grain foods leave you feeling fuller than the more processed versions.

Stretch out the time it takes to eat your meals. Eat slowly and enjoy every bite. Put down your fork between bites. You're more likely to enjoy what you eat and recognize when you're full since it takes your brain about 20 minutes to get the message.

Choose lower-fat versions of the foods you enjoy (low-fat instead of whole milk, baked chips, reduced-fat cheeses).

Don't deprive yourself; just don't overindulge in your favorite foods. You can still eat ice cream; just eat a small portion, not the whole pint.

The nutrition labels found on most food products, if not read carefully, can sabotage portion-control efforts.

Sometimes a container looks as if it would be one serving when, in fact, it is more. People often believe that candy bars or bags of chips contain one serving, but sometimes two servings may be lurking in a single package.

It's important to pay attention to how many servings there are in the package of food. The first line of the nutrition label gives the serving size. The second line shows the number of servings per container.

All of the other information on the label, calories from fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate, etc., relates to a single-serving size. Unless the label is read carefully, you could think the nutritional information refers to the entire container.

If there are two servings, and you eat them, you need to double the calories and nutrients shown on the label.

As restaurants continue to compete for customer dollars by offering larger and larger portions, a survey commissioned by the American Institute for Cancer Research reveals that most Americans are unthinkingly gobbling up all that extra food.

According to the survey, 67 percent said they finished their entrees most of the time or always, and most said that the amount of food they are served in restaurants is "just right." Unfortunately, the survey suggests that most Americans are basing the amount of food they eat upon the amount they are served, says Melanie Polk, the institute's director of nutrition education.

Nutritionists point to restaurant eating as a major influence on confusion about portion sizes. Yet as the "value marketing" trend offering more food for less money has risen, national obesity rates have doubled since 1980, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

(c) 2001 The Bergen Record

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