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Control -- on a platter

Portion products take the guesswork out of serving sizes. But do they really stop folks from overeating?

March 31, 2008|Karen Ravn | Special to The Times

A portion is a portion is a portion -- unless, that is, it's a giant, super, king or grande portion, in which case it's probably trouble.

Over the last 30 years, portions have grown by heaps and mounds in restaurants across the country and in many homes as well. During that same time, the waistlines of Americans consuming those mega-meals have grown more and more generous too -- to the point that now two-thirds of American adults are considered overweight.

Some companies say they've got what it takes to help turn both trends around and serve up svelte good health -- if not on a silver platter, at least on a microwaveable, dishwasher-safe plate.

A plate intended to give people the sad news about just how little they really ought to be eating.

These so-called portion-control plates -- with names such as the Diet Plate, EZ Weight Plate and Portion Doctor -- are marked into sections, or divided into compartments, designated to be filled with different types of food. There are large areas for vegetables and much smaller areas for everything else. The theory is that people will eat appropriate amounts when using the plates (some of them originally designed for people with diabetes) and learn to recognize, and reject, inappropriate amounts whenever they're tempted by them.

Portion-control products make sense, says John Hamberg, vice president of marketing for Portionpals in Port Washington, N.Y., which manufactures special cutting boards to help dole out portions. "Why is the nation getting fatter and fatter? They're overeating," he says. "We're telling them how to eat proper amounts."

No need to count calories, says Kay Illingworth, managing director of the Diet Plate, based in Glossop in the United Kingdom. "People only need use their eyes to slim."

To date, only one published study has tested a portion-control plate. When used properly, this study found, the plate promoted weight loss among people with Type 2 diabetes.

"If something as simple as a plate can do that, it's very significant," says study lead author Dr. Sue Pedersen, a specialist in endocrinology and metabolism at the universities of Calgary and Saskatchewan in Canada.

But not all nutrition experts think that something as simple as a plate or bowl can take a bite out of long-ingrained eating habits.

"I wasn't personally too impressed with the numbers [in the diabetes study]," says Susan Roberts, a senior scientist in the Human Nutrition Research Center at Tufts University in Boston. Besides, "the plate method only touches the stuff you eat at home. . . . I would say eating at home is the least of our problems. Many people cook very little these days."

Overall, diet and nutrition experts agree that portion-control devices can't hurt and might help.

"If people use plate size as a tool to guide portion sizes, it would probably be useful," says Barbara Rolls, professor of nutritional sciences at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. "Anything we can try to do to educate people about appropriate portions is good."

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Out of proportion

Portion-control plates are intended to do just what their name says: get portion sizes under control. Most experts agree that portions have run amok.

Starting in the 1970s, portions in all food categories except bread have been growing, according to a 2002 study conducted at New York University. That includes portions served in restaurants, packaged items sold in grocery stores and portion sizes in cookbook recipes.

Some examples: Twenty years ago, an average-sized bagel was 3 inches in diameter and had 140 calories, according to figures from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Now it's 6 inches across and packs about 350 calories. Twenty years ago, a cheeseburger, order of fries and a soda had 630 calories, fewer than half as many calories as the same 1,450-calorie meal, on average, today, according to the institute.

"People know portions are big, but they have no idea how big, and how much bigger they are than what we should eat," says Lisa Young, adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University.

And while portion sizes have been expanding, people have been doing the same. From 1976 through 1980, health professionals interviewed and examined thousands of people for the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and found that 15% of adults ages 20 to 74 were obese. When the survey was conducted during the period 2003 to 2004, the figure had more than doubled to 33%.

No one thinks that extra-large portions are totally responsible for extra-large people. And just because portions are mountainous doesn't mean people have to treat them like Everest and eat them just because they're there.

Still, that may be just what happens. "The ability to eat calories to simply sustain health has all but been lost," says Kim Gorman, weight management program director at the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado in Denver.

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