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Body weight - controlling your portion sizes

Eating overly large portions can lead to obesity. To maintain a healthy body weight, we need to balance the energy we take in from food with the energy that we use up through activity.

In the UK, unhealthy diets and inactivity are tipping this balance and leading to higher levels of obesity.

The food we are eating is part of the problem - often, it is loaded with fat and sugar so you only need to eat a little to get more energy than you need. The extra, unused energy leads to weight gain.

But in many cases, people are simply eating larger portions than ever before.

More and more food

It is very easy and tempting to eat too much food. In the last few decades, the portion sizes of food sold in shops and served in restaurants has grown tremendously. A study by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) found that burgers have doubled in size since 1980. And pasta servings are about five times larger.

Larger portions set up a vicious cycle. People who eat larger meals are used to seeing bigger portions of foods and get stuck in the habit of eating lots of calories that they don't burn off.

Research has shown that people eat more if they are given a larger portion of food than they would normally have. You can’t always rely on your body to register all those extra calories and adjust your appetite throughout the day.

So to stop yourself putting more weight on and maybe lose some weight, you will need to keep an eye on the amount of food you eat, and think about cutting it down. Here are our ideas for being portion-savvy.

At home

  • Eat off a smaller plate - you are more likely to eat less food.
  • Fill your plate up with lots of vegetables (except for potatoes). They are low in calories, good for you, and will help to fill you up.
  • Be careful when you read food labels. A ‘portion’ of food as defined by the manufacturer may not be the same as a healthy-sized portion.
  • Cook smaller quantities of food. This will reduce the temptation for second-helpings.
  • After you’ve served yourself, refrigerate or freeze leftovers so that you’re not tempted to have seconds.
  • Use smaller amounts of spreads or fillings and choose low fat varieties.
  • Don’t eat from the bag - place foods in a bowl so you can see how much you’re eating.

Eating out

  • If you’re eating out at night, think about what you eat during the rest of the day. Don’t skip meals - this might make you overeat later. Instead, plan to eat lighter meals earlier on in the day so you don’t take in too many calories.
  • Have a salad as a starter. And don’t commit yourself to ordering a dessert until you’ve finished your main course.
  • If you’re eating a meal with lots of dishes, like tapas or dim sum, be careful how many you order.
  • If you have a choice, order regular portion sizes instead of large ones.
  • Try splitting a starter or side dishes with a friend - it’s sociable and will cut down on your calorie intake.
  • Do not feel you have to clear your plate. It can help to decide in advance what you’re going to eat and push the rest to the side of the plate.
  • Ask for food the way you want it. You could for example, ask for sauces on the side. These can be high in fat, so you can get more control over how much you put on your meal.

More tips

Our Ten Top Tips page has more advice on reaching a healthy body weight through healthy eating and physical activity. Ten Top Tips is a programme for weight loss through lifestyle changes that you can fit into your daily routine.

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Updated: 25 September 2009