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Why do most people consume more calories than they realize? It’s because they have an incorrect perception of portion size. A survey conducted by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) indicates 78% of Americans believe the kind of food they eat is more important for managing their weight than how much food they eat. “People are eating more and wondering why they’re getting fatter ,” says Melanie Polk, MMSc, RD, director of Nutrition Education at the AICR. “One big reason is that their focus is too narrow.” Ms. Polk explained that Americans think to much about cutting fat, or they rely on fad diets that limit carbohydrates, sugar, and other nutrients. Several studies have revealed these strategies don’t address the issue of total caloric consumption. They also often ignore overall good nutrition. Respondents to the AICR survey were asked to estimate the standard servings defined by the USDA Food Guide Pyramid for eight different foods, including pasta , green salad, beans, and mashed potatoes. An amazing 1% of the respondents were able to correctly answer all eight serving size questions. Five or more questions were missed by 63%, and a significant 31% managed to estimate only one serving size correctly. According to Ms. Polk, the survey results shows that an important message about portion control is not getting through to the masses. Serving Sizes Are Necessary to Good Nutrition: An understanding of the concept of standard serving sizes is essential to good nutrition according to the experts. Standardized serving sizes provide a common language for consumers, health professionals, and food manufacturers for the sake of communication. Serving sizes are “standardized,” but individual portion sizes will vary since people have different caloric requirements. A person’s specific weight management and health goals will also effect an individual’s portion size. Pregnant and breast-feeding women may require a larger portion size , for example. Weight Management - A Dilemma: A cultural component also seems to be involved with the problems of obesity and lack of nutritional awareness. Just look at the fast-food restaurants. They offer “super-size-it” or “biggie-size”. These often contain an entire day’s worth of calories and fat. American’s total daily caloric intake has risen by 148 calories per day since 1980 as shown by statistics from the US Department of Agriculture. This increase results in an extra 15 pounds every year. Ironically, at the same time, studies reveal the amount of fat in the average American diet has decreased from 40% of total calories to 33% during the same period. So even though calories from fat have decreased at nine calories per gram of fat versus only four per gram of carbohydrate or protein, Americans have more than made up for their lower fat intakes with larger portion sizes of other types of foods. Larger portion sizes equal more calories. And more calories lead to weight gain, regardless of the source of the calories: fat, protein, or carbohydrate. Since fat can provide a feeling of fullness, and help some people avoid eating to excess , cutting fat out of their diets, may cause some people to lose this signal to stop eating. Additionally, many “low-fat” and “no fat” foods can be just as high and in some cases higher in calories than the regular versions because manufacturers will often add extra sugar to offset the taste lost with the fat. Nutritional Needs Do Vary: Several factors affect portion sizes and overall dietary requirements. These include activity level. An inactive person may only need three-quarters to one cup of cereal in the morning, which is the usual serving size of most varieties. However, someone who runs several miles a day or engages in other forms of aerobic exercise may need two or three standard serving sizes. Ms. Polk suggests using the Food Guide Pyramid serving sizes or those used by the “Nutrition Facts” food label to help determine standard serving size. How to Estimate Portion Sizes Do you know what a portion size is? According to the American Dietetic Association, you can use the following “models” to estimate portion sizes: * A deck of playing cards = one serving (three ounces) of meat, poultry, or fish (can also use the palm of a woman’s hand or a computer mouse). * Half a baseball = one serving (one-half cup) of fruit , vegetables, pasta, or rice (can also use a small fist). * Your thumb = one serving (one ounce) of cheese. * A small hand holding a tennis ball = one serving (one cup) of yogurt or chopped fresh greens. The AICR recommends the following tips to control food portions: At Home: * Take time to “eyeball” the serving sizes of your favorite foods (using some of the models listed above). * Measure out single servings onto your plates and bowls, and remember what they look like.