Portion Distortion: Change Your Perspective, Eat Better, Spend Less

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I’ve got one month left on my $600 in weight-loss bets, and an important tool that has helped me success is portion control. This way, I can still enjoy most of my favorite foods while still losing 1-2 pounds a week. Even naughty things like pizza, pasta, and yes even the occasional chips or french fries. (Of course there are also lots of fruits and veggies to balance things out.)

The National Institute of Health has a page on portion distortion, which outlines how our idea of reasonable portion sizes have changed over the last 20 years. (The slides appear to be from 2004, so make that 30 years?!) Everything from bagels to pizza slices to soft drinks used to be much smaller…just like our bodies! The average American man weighs 195.5 lbs now, which is 30 lbs more than in the 1960s. The average American woman weighs 166 lbs now, 26 lbs more. Here are their slides for cheeseburgers and french fries.



Just this week, I saw a McDonald’s commercial offering a cheeseburger and small fries for $2.50. They look so small now, but would have actually started out as an oversized meal (due to the extra meat patty).


The double cheeseburger has 430 calories, 24g protein, 21g fat. (The single cheeseburger has 290 calories.) The small french fries (2.6 oz.) have 230 calories, 2g, 11g fat. Bring your own water bottle and you’ll have a meal with 660 calories, almost exactly 1/3rd of a 2,000 calorie day. I’m not recommending this as a daily healthy meal, but I found it interesting that you can still order a 1960s-sized meal on their menu which doesn’t completely blow up your nutrition plans for the week.

This NY Times article has many more ideas for meals at restaurants under 750 calories. What do they say is the “most valuable trick”? Don’t eat an entire portion.

Instead of splitting an entree between my wife and myself, I prefer to order two entrees (we like variety and enjoy sharing) but make sure that we leave enough food for lunch the next day. I do the same thing for meals cooked at home; I cook around the same amount as before (due to habit and my use of recipes) but split it into two meals. At the same time, rarely having to pay for lunch saves me money.

I also pulled weight-loss tricks from other sources like eating less “empty” carbs, including enough protein and fiber to feel fuller longer, and keeping healthy snacks like fruit and nuts around at all times. But realizing that my previous portion sizes were simply too big has definitely helped me the most.

If I wanted to stretch this idea further into personal finance, I could point to how the square footage of US houses have doubled since the 1950s, even as average household sizes have shrunk.

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  1. I’d also recommend reading about plant-based diets, as one of the benefits is there’s much less need to engage in portion control.

    Plants have so much fiber (meat, fish, eggs, and dairy have NO fiber) that you’ll feel more full, and they’re also far less dense and easier to burn off. Of course, you can go 100% plant-based and still eat highly processed, junk food (like Oreos or Swedish Fish) – then portion control will be important. But for healthy plant-based meals, you don’t really have to worry about eating too much – so I suggest anyone read up on the evidence and studies relating to that!

  2. Great tips on saving money AND losing weight! It’s amazing how much portions have changed. I like your idea to cook the big amount but immediately splitting it into smaller portions – will definitely have to try that out. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Jennifer says

    My personal trick regarding McDs is to order off the dollar menu. Small fries, 4 piece chicken nuggets plus water and you have a very reasonable lunch. If I’m feeling hungry I’ll do a medium fries or a 6 piece chicken nuggets and it’s still not completely crazy.

    I don’t know if you’ve read Good Calorie Bad Calorie but it’s a very long book with a million facts. The one that stuck with me is that apparently people consume something like 3700 calories a day now, whereas 50 years ago, they used to consume 2500 calories a day. If my memory is accurate, it’s not too surprising we’re so much fatter than we used to be.

  4. When we eat at fast food joints (typically when traveling), my wife and I will combine a sandwich order and a “meal” order, so that we share the fries and drink and each get the main course we want. That keeps us from over-indulging in fries or soda.

    At home we often use our salad/desert plates (8-9 inches) for dinner, rather than the large plates in the set. Definitely helps make a modest portion feel larger.

  5. I’m a parent who eats at McDonalds more than I’d like (they have a cool play area). My usual choice there is the ranch snack wrap (grilled) or a regular hamburger (with lots of pickles), plus a side salad and light dressing, and a diet coke. It’s not great, but calorie wise, around 500-600, so adequate for dinner. I’m usually hungry too though — and steal a couple of fries from my son.

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