Clare Farrand is a public health nutritionist with The George Institute for Global Health.
Little by little, we are eating more and more. In particular, women are eating more energy, more fat and more sugar than recommended – and when differences in body weight are taken into account, are eating even more than men.
So, what’s the root of this problem? Increased portion sizes. Over recent years, average portion sizes have grown so much that a single plate of food may now contain enough food for two, even three people.
This includes the portion size of food that we eat at home, in restaurants and from takeaway outlets, as well from packaged and pre-prepared foods available in supermarkets. It seems to be a one size fits all approach – there is no difference in portion sizes for a man compared to a woman, despite considerable differences in nutritional needs. As such, women are at greater risk of over-eating, and this is having a significant impact on our waistlines.
The bigger the portion, the more you’ll want to eat
According to research from The George Institute, over 56 per cent of women in Australia are overweight or obese, and the number of women who are severely obese now outnumber men. The situation is also worse for couples. Another study cited in the American Journal of Epidemiology suggests that a spouse that becomes obese doubles the risk of their partner also becoming obese.
Many factors influence the amount of food that we eat and when it comes to portion size, the larger the portion, the more we are inclined to eat, irrespective of how hungry we are, or our nutritional needs. The more food we see, the more food we eat.
The good news is that we can control our portion size. A portion is the amount of food that you choose to eat for a meal or a snack. It can be as big or as small as you decide, contrary to a ‘serving’ – which is a measured amount of food and drink, such as one slice of bread, as per the Australian dietary guidelines. Many foods that are sold as a single portion actually contain several servings.
The amount of food that we need depends on our body size and activity level. Given men are generally larger and have a higher muscle mass, they require more energy and therefore more protein, carbohydrates and fats than women do. Women at different life stages will need more iron, and calcium than men, and may require more energy during pregnancy and lactation.
Australian Dietary Guidelines point out that as we age, our energy needs decrease and eating healthy becomes even more important as we need to make sure we get the right nutrients whilst eating less.
Use your hands as a measure
It is not always easy calculating how much food we should eat, but using our hands may be an easy way to keep our portions in check according to the Journal of Nutritional Science, as our hands generally correspond to our body size. Women have significantly smaller hands compared to men. On average, men’s finger width (cm) is 20 per cent bigger than women, thumb tip volume and index finger tip volume (ml) is 54 per cent and 56 per cent greater than women, and fist volume (ml) 47 per cent greater than women (321ml compared to 217ml). Therefore, using our hands as a measure of portion size provides a good measure relative to our gender and size.
Recommended portion sizes, according to the Heart Foundation
- Fruits and vegetables: two hands cupped together for non-starchy vegetables like carrots, broccoli, cauliflower (try to include as much variety as possible, using different colours as a guide).
- Grain foods and starchy carbohydrates: a closed fist is a good guide for a portion of starchy carbohydrates like potato, rice, pasta and bread.
- Legumes: A closed fist is a good guide for a portion of legumes including chickpeas, lentils or beans.
- Meat: a palm sized portion or red meat or chicken. The thickness of the meat should also be about the same thickness of your palm.
- Fish: The whole of your hand is a good guide for a portion of fish (when opting for fish instead of meat).
- High fat foods: one thumb sized portion for butter, oils and nuts. Two thumb sized portion for cheese.
Eating the right types and the right amount of foods is vital for everyone to ensure a healthy diet and reduce the risk of unwanted weight gain and the knock-on impact on our health.
It is not always easy to control the amount of food served but knowing how much food we should be eating can guide us to make healthier choices throughout the day. Using our hands as a guide makes this even easier.
It is important to remember that it is what we do every day that will have the greatest impact on our overall diets and health. Enjoy a wide variety of foods, eat mostly fresh and don’t eat too much.