by Marion Nestle
Feb 24 2012

Nutritionist’s notebook: Portion Control

I’ve just agreed to write a Q and A column, Nutritionist’s Notebook, for NYU’s student newspaper, the Washington Square News (WSN).  The columns will appear on Tuesday.   This first one was published on February 22.

This week, WSN welcomes professor-columnist Marion Nestle. A Paulette Goddard professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at NYU, Nestle also co-authored the recently published book “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics.” Each week, she will answer student questions about nutrition, health and food.


What is the importance of size in our portions? What is the best way to judge portions when going out to dinner?


Easy. Large portions make you eat more. If I could teach just one thing about nutrition, it would be this: larger portions have more calories. Funny? Portion size is anything but obvious. Research repeatedly confirms that larger food servings not only provide more calories but also have two other effects. They encourage people to eat more and to underestimate how much they are eating.

A few years ago, I asked Lisa Young, who teaches our department’s introductory nutrition course, to ask her students to guess the number of calories in an eight-ounce Coke and a 64-ounce Double Gulp — yes, such things exist. She did not expect beginning students to know the exact numbers, but did expect them to do the math. To her surprise, the average multiplier turned out to be 3, not 8. How come? Students said that 800 calories in a drink was impossible. No, it is not, as menu labels now reveal.

How to deal with the portion size problem? Use small plates and cups in the dining hall. When eating out, order appetizers, not entrees. Order the small size, or share large portions with friends.

The system is stacked against you and it’s up to you to figure out how to cope with it. Small sizes, for example, usually cost relatively more.

For a long time, I’ve wanted restaurant owners to give a price break for smaller portions. No luck. They say this would put them out of business. We need to make it easier for people to choose smaller portions, which means changes in public policy.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Feb. 21 print edition. Marion Nestle is a professor/contributing columnist. To submit your questions, email her at

  • One more tip: If you order a regular meal, divide it in half, put half in a take-home container right away, and eat the rest.

  • While I agree with the sentiment, I’m not sure that Barbara Rolls at Penn State would, without some clarifications on portion size.

    Hunger and hedonic desire are material driving forces behind eating larger portions, in addition to cost.

    To satisfy the hunger issue and therefore quell the hedonic issue, Rolls advocates larger portions of low calorie density foods – fill the stomach as much as you like with foods that contain mainly water and fiber.

    There really could be something to this whole message of ‘eat smaller portions of this, and larger portions of that’, or would that just be too complex to the average hungry person in the street?

  • TJ

    Marion, would you mind providing citations for this statement:

    Research repeatedly confirms that larger food servings not only provide more calories but also have two other effects. *They encourage people to eat more…*



  • Ellen

    Many restaurants now offer a “Happy Hour” menu of items in smaller portions. My husband and I are in our 50s and just can’t deal with the amount of food that comes in a typical meal. If a menu item is not something that reheats well for a subsequent meal at home, I’m reluctant to order it because I really hate wasting the extra food, so the Happy Hour menus are a boon for us.

  • Kate

    @TJ, this study was done in 2005:

    Wansink, B., Painter, J.E., & North, J. (2005). Bottomless Bowls: Why Visual Cues of Portion Size May Influence Intake Obesity Research, 13 (1), 93-100

  • anthro

    I have suspected that one reason I have maintained my weight loss for six years now is that I continue to measure my food and only order appetizers–and select them carefully–at restaurants. If I have salad, I ask for dressing on the side and use no more than half of it.

    Boring? Perhaps, but how many middle-aged women do you know who lose 45 lbs and keep it off for six years? Also, I eat wonderful food–just not much of it. And, yes, it takes a lot of effort, but I like not having diabetes and heart disease any more.

    I hope you will continue to share this column with us Marion! My copy of CALORIES COUNT arrived this morning! I’m going to go make a decaf and get started now that I’ve shoveled eight inches of very wet snow and can justify a long stretch on the couch!

  • After reading Barbara Rolls, Pritiken and Jeff Novick, I thought caloric density was more important, not portion control.

  • emjaycee

    I have found that often the appetizer is just as big or even bigger than the entree at some restaurants. What is needed, I think is to talk with the servers about anything you are considering ordering when you eat out, to get a feeling for what the portion sizes are. Better yet, eat at a place where you can see the food that you are going to order, like a cafeteria or best of all, eat at home.

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  • Suzanne

    I will order senior portions at restaurants without blinking, for an adequate portion without excess. I have never had a server refuse to serve me even though I’m not a senior. If questioned, I would cite a medical condition I doubt they would argue with.

    What my pet peeve is at restaurants is the side dishes – 100% carbohydrate based. If a restaurant won’t allow me to substitute for non-starchy vegetables, I won’t be back. And I tell them so.

  • Anon

    Portion control was the main reason I lost 50 pounds using the Sonoma Diet.

    My wife and I were already eating healthy food: organic, prepared from scratch with an appropriate balance of protein/carbs/vegies. (We grow a large Biodynamic/French Intensive garden every year.) We never eat fast food, eat healthy when we do go out and the few packaged foods that we eat are also organic without trans fats or additives.

    The Sonoma Diet is essentially a Mediterranean diet that emphasizes gradual weight loss while the dieter learns how to limit the intake of calories based on the kind of food eaten and activity level. I’ve tried most of the popular diets and the Sonoma Diet was the most intuitive: no calorie counting or “exchanges” to keep track of. (Don’t get me started on the popular high-protein/low carb diets! The South Beach Diet adversely affected my digestive system.)

    Some mom and pop restaurants offer reduced portions of their regular menu items and adjust the price accordingly. The less enlightened refer to them as “senior meals.” Others simply offer an option to order a smaller portion without any awkward labeling. Those restaurants are the ones that we tend to patronize.

    I am often asked how I was able to lose 50 pounds and keep the weight off after three years post-diet. The simple answer: I eat 50% less than I did before I learned how to manage the size of my portions. (That includes keeping track of my alcohol intake since there are a lot of calories in beer.)

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  • Suzanne


    What high protein / low carb diets are you referring to? What is gaining popularity recently because they are successful for weight loss and glucose control, is High Fat, Adequate Protein, Low Carb.

  • Joe

    I was surprised and yet pleased to see you say “The system is stacked against you and it’s up to you to figure out how to cope with it.” That is exactly what I have pointed out in every post here or anywhere else. Health is a personal decision not one that can ever be solved at the Federal level with regulations and programs.

  • Anon

    Suzanne, I’m referring to diets such as the South Beach Diet and the Atkins Diet, among others.

    Your post illustrates that American diet fads come and go. High fat diets have been popular in the past. The Body Ecology Diet and the book “Nourishing Traditions” tout the benefits of using coconut oil as the best fat for cooking. Give it a try and watch your cholesterol go through the roof!

    Low-carb diets are another fad but they tend to have more staying-power.

    Diets should take into account that people vary in their dietary requirements. For example, I found that the amount of carbs suggested in the Sonoma Diet were insufficient for me. So I bumped them up slightly and it made a big difference for me. The downside? Instead of taking 12 months to lose 50 pounds it took me 14 months. The upside? I was able to stay on the diet without feeling deprived and I have kept the weight off after I stopped losing weight.

    One thing that I neglected to note in my first post is that the Sonoma Diet has a companion cookbook. The recipes are generally simple and fast to prepare. My wife is an excellent cook and she has found the Sonoma Diet recipes to be first-rate. We still use the cookbook after completing the weight-loss regimen.

  • Margeretrc

    @anon, “The South Beach Diet adversely affected my digestive system.” You’re lucky that’s all it affected. The South Beach diet is a low fat, high protein, low carb diet. That approach is a non-starter and should never be maintained long term. I wouldn’t do it at all–ever.
    Low carb, high fat diets are actually not a fad. There are several cultures around the world that have always eaten low carb, high fat. And low carb, high fat was the norm for our species until grains were domesticated about 10000 years ago. It’s the low fat high carb diet that is the fad–that has only been around for about 4 decades.
    “Give it a try and watch your cholesterol go through the roof!” Many cultures in the South Pacific and other parts of the world eat various diets that are all high in coconut/coconut oil. Perhaps they have higher cholesterol than we do–who knows? But I’m pretty sure they’re not dying of heart disease at the rate we are. You say coconut oil raised your cholesterol. Is that the only change you made in your diet at the time? How do you know it was the coconut oil? Did you check the difference in the various kinds of cholesterol carriers? It’s my understanding that coconut oil raises HDL. Who wouldn’t want that? I eat and cook with coconut oil all the time. Last I checked my cholesterol was fine. Coconut oil is only bad if it is hydrogenated–and that is what was used decades ago in tests that were used to smear the reputation of coconut oil (to make way for partially hydrogenated, trans fat laden vegetable oils). Regular coconut oil, as it comes from the coconut, has not been shown in any scientific study to be detrimental to health–quiet the opposite, in fact.
    As to portion control, I control my portions easily and naturally by centering my diet around fat. I eat a high fat, moderate protein, low carb diet and never, ever have to count calories, watch portion control, or anything else. I know when I’ve had enough to eat, because I’m not hungry any more. I order what I want at a restaurant and if I still have food left on my plate (I usually do) when I reach that point, I just bring the left overs home. Having a bigger portion served to me does NOT make me eat more–it just gives me a second meal or part of one for later. Last I checked, my cholesterol was fine, and my weight is fine. At 65 I’m wearing clothes I wouldn’t have dared to when I was on a calorie controlled, low fat diet 20 years ago (and was at least 30 lb. overweight). My husband tells me I look younger now than I did then. I have not gained fat since I lost my fear of fat over 6 years ago–in fact I’ve gotten considerably leaner.

  • Margeretrc

    “quite the opposite”, I mean, not “quiet the opposite.” Dang.

  • Suzanne

    At Anon,

    Like Margaretrc mentioned, High Fat Adequate Protein Low Carb are ancestral diets for a variety of cultures, including our own – the “fad” element is only that people are learning about them in recent history. A difference here is that I don’t consider how I eat a “diet regimen”. It’s a way of life that incorporates eating whole fresh foods, getting adequate sleep, and including strength training without excessive cardio for fitness. I treat my T2 Diabetes with this type of eating and movement. I don’t have the option of bumping up the carbs just because I’d prefer to or it’s easier unless I am willing to accept doing harm to my pancreatic functioning and damaging my organs via elevated blood glucose.

  • Suzanne

    My lipid panels started out borderline high when I was overweight. After transitioning to High Fat Adequate Protein Low Carb, I’ve seen a consistent increase in HDL, and decrease in LDL and Tri-Glycerides. N=1.

  • I’ve often wished that I could order half an entree and pay a bit less. Some of those serving sizes at restaurants are outrageously big.

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