Portion distortion: typical portion sizes selected by young adults

J Am Diet Assoc. 2006 Sep;106(9):1412-8. doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2006.06.006.


Objective: The incidence of obesity has increased in parallel with increasing portion sizes of individually packaged and ready-to-eat prepared foods as well as foods served at restaurants. Portion distortion (perceiving large portion sizes as appropriate amounts to eat at a single eating occasion) may contribute to increasing energy intakes and expanding waistlines. The purpose of this study was to determine typical portion sizes that young adults select, how typical portion sizes compare with reference portion sizes (based in this study on the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act's quantities of food customarily eaten per eating occasion), and whether the size of typical portions has changed over time.

Subjects: Young adults (n=177, 75% female, age range 16 to 26 years) at a major northeastern university.

Methods: Participants served themselves typical portion sizes of eight foods at breakfast (n=63) or six foods at lunch or dinner (n=62, n=52, respectively). Typical portion-size selections were unobtrusively weighed. A unit score was calculated by awarding 1 point for each food with a typical portion size that was within 25% larger or smaller than the reference portion; larger or smaller portions were given 0 points. Thus, each participant's unit score could range from 0 to 8 at breakfast or 0 to 6 at lunch and dinner. Analysis of variance or t tests were used to determine whether typical and reference portion sizes differed, and whether typical portion sizes changed over time.

Results: Mean unit scores (+/-standard deviation) were 3.63+/-1.27 and 1.89+/-1.14, for breakfast and lunch/dinner, respectively, indicating little agreement between typical and reference portion sizes. Typical portions sizes in this study tended to be significantly different from those selected by young adults in a similar study conducted 2 decades ago.

Conclusions: Portion distortion seems to affect the portion sizes selected by young adults for some foods. This phenomenon has the potential to hinder weight loss, weight maintenance, and/or health improvement efforts. Thus, to ensure more effective nutrition counseling, food and nutrition professionals must develop ways to "undistort" what clients perceive to be typical portion sizes and help them recognize what is an appropriate amount to eat at a single eating occasion.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Diet / trends*
  • Diet Surveys
  • Eating* / psychology
  • Energy Intake / physiology*
  • Female
  • Food / classification*
  • Food / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Obesity / epidemiology
  • Obesity / etiology*
  • Reference Values
  • Size Perception