Using this portion technique, Sophie Morris feels outrageously cheated - however, after eating her meal, she never feels hungry. Could this be the answer to Britain’s ‘consumption problem’?
(c) Ben Edmonds
I didn’t expect a plastic plate to test my patience, but it is day one in my kitchen experiment and I already hate it. I’ve agreed to try out something called a “three-compartment-divided dinner plate” as an experiment into portion size. But right from the start, I dislike it. For starters, I like a nice-looking plate. What’s more, I’m struggling to cram my fair share of rice into the tiny-seeming triangle I’m allotted for tonight’s carbs.
There’s no great mystery as to why the plate is resistant to my pile of carbs. At 20cm across, it is almost a third smaller than my own 28cm dinner plates, which, I’m told, invite overeating (to give you an idea of the portions I was raised on, there were five of us at Christmas last year, and my mum ordered a ham to feed 35- plus). The idea is that the plate keeps your meal 50 per cent veg, 25 per cent carbs and 25 per cent protein. If I didn’t know the melamine plastic would damage my paintwork before it shattered, I’d hurl the plate at the kitchen wall.
Despite the available avalanche of healthy eating advice in recent years, the great British waistband continues to expand. Why? There’s a hunch that even when we’re eating the right things, we’re eating far too much of them.
Big - sometimes super-sized - portions have been normalised for a number of reasons. There’s the aforementioned crockery dimensions, for starters. Another issue is the increase in eating out; notwithstanding recent cost of living cutbacks, we eat out more than ever and can’t help but tap those apps for takeaways week in, week out.
Overall, according to a number of scientific journals, the average portion size has increased by 138 per cent in 50 years - since the 70s - whether we’re talking supermarkets, restaurant meals or fast food. Nutrition scientist Bridget Benelam from the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) doesn’t think the UK is yet aligned with the US in terms of mega portions, but we’re getting there. In BNF focus groups, while people have plenty to say about what sort of foods make up a decent diet, they are mostly stumped when asked how much we should eat.
Rice and pasta are both widespread examples of portion distortion, says Benelam: “People find it really difficult when cooking pasta or rice. It might not look a lot in the pan, but once they’ve cooked too much, they serve too much as they don’t want to waste it.”
She adds that people don’t want to “get their weighing scales out” but while these things aren’t unhealthy, “if you regularly get a portion size too big, they can result in a lot of extra calories”. What’s more, the people consuming the biggest portions - probably the top 10 per cent - are eating around 500 calories worth of pasta in one sitting. That’s before adding, say, bolognese and cheese.
I’m in a good place to test my own portion distortion because I’ve just returned from a holiday on which cake for breakfast and afternoon wine were the norm. I’m ready to make some healthy changes and begin with a slightly dull but ultimately satisfying plate of salmon, wholegrain couscous, salad and veg. The recommended portion is 140g for fish, described as “palm of hand” size. I take a pre-packaged 100g portion from the freezer. I keep these for quick meals for my daughter, and along with the kids’ picnic plate this is beginning to feel like a nursery diet.
The BNF and the British Dietetic Association (BDA) each carry similar portion advice on their websites, relating to the Government’s Eatwell Guide for a balanced diet. We should aim for two to three portions of protein a day, two to three of dairy or alternatives, three to four of starchy carbs, five or more fruit and veg, and small amounts of fats. Grains like rice or couscous should weigh in at 50g, or three tablespoons (uncooked). Pasta is 75g. Bread is 35g. There’s no mention of chocolate or wine.
“Portion guidelines are just that - guidelines,” says dietitian and BDA spokesperson Nichola Ludlam- Raine. “What somebody eats should be based on their size, activity levels, what they do for a living and what they’ve eaten over the rest of the day and the week.”
So are portion plates helpful? “I like the healthy portion plate,” she says, “split into thirds. But we should be listening to internal cues. Do we need more carbs for energy, or more fibre and veg for fullness? If you’re weight training, do you need more protein?” What about the recommended portion size on packets?
Both Ludlam-Raine and Benelam say these can be useful and confusing. Useful because they remind us that a 100g chocolate bar is not a single serving. Confusing because the suggested portion sizes often don’t make practical sense.
“We don’t have consistency,” says Benelam. “A supermarket cake might be for six or eight, while a bag of crisps might say it holds two portions. We saw a box of cereal that says ‘contains 17 portions’. How would you know if you’ve got a 17th of a box? If portion sizes are not intuitive or easy to follow, then people just ignore them.”
I’m surprised to learn that most portion sizes on packets are decided with an average woman in mind. Adult women are advised to consume around 2,000 calories a day, and men around 2,500.
Most of us are eating too much anyway. Something Ludlam-Raine is only too aware of, because her clinical specialism is with bariatric surgery patients. “The main issues I see are constant snacking and grazing, and portion control. Research shows if you use a bigger plate, or pour from a bigger packet, you’ll eat more.”
Not all packaged foods are at fault, however. Many ready meals meet portion guidelines. Ludlam-Raine even found that her husband lost weight when they were without a kitchen for a few weeks and turned to microwave meals.
I admit that every time I fill my portion plate, I feel cheated. And yet, after eating, I never feel hungry. I move from salmon to chicken, seasoning with a little oil and za’atar. When I weigh the small pot of leftover potato salad to eat with this, I find it is double the portion size by both measures of weight and volume. I reluctantly return half to the fridge, when on any other occasion I would have wolfed the lot.
With a cheese omelette, I cut a suggested size of “two thumbs” or a “matchbox-sized” piece of cheese (not extra long matches!), but I can tell this is about twice the 30g it should be, and the scales back me up. I cut it in half for the omelette, but as the rest is still there after lunch, I share it with the dog.
On steak night, we have two large pieces - 450g meat for three, which is four 90g portions. To save money and methane, I usually slice up steak and serve it on a platter, and find everyone takes less this way than if they’d been given one huge chunk. If I had eaten a steak by myself, it would have been 2.5 portions.
I then spent a morning writing about cake, an unfortunate work clash given the subject of this piece, but one I can’t avoid. I decide there’s no point denying my craving for something sweet, and dash to a local bakery at lunchtime. I come away with a triple chocolate cookie measuring 18cm across. For some reason, I eat half and save the rest for later. I can’t remember behaving like this with a biscuit before.
So what’s the verdict? I’m not hungry, but I sure am bored. The reason my plates look like tragic diet plates or those patronising “picky girl dinners” is because the food is separated out as if for a toddler.
“If the plate works for you, great,” says Benelam. She agrees with me that we’re more likely to eat foods mixed together, into a curry, stew or pie, for example.
She instead suggests considering portions before you cook, then you know how many people your finished dish should feed. “If people have the motivation, weighing ingredients can be really useful,” she says. “If you don’t feel like weighing, use the hand measures. Don’t be too restrictive. None of us can stick to really restrictive diets, it just doesn’t work.”
“There’s a time and a place for these portion plates,” says Ludlam- Raine. She has some portion cups and spoons at home, but, like Benelam, thinks the worst thing is for anyone to feel like they’re on a diet. You could try eating your protein first, then the vegetables, and finally the carbs if you’re still hungry. Don’t load up on seconds or pudding before you’ve given your fullness a chance to register with your brain.
Another thing to remember is that drinks can be big calorie burdens: 175 calories in a 457ml Starbucks grande latte and 225 calories in a 250ml glass of wine.
A glass of wine. Half a giant cookie. An extra chunk of cheese. These all seem like small changes, whether indulged in or sacrificed, compared with 1,433 calories in a Domino’s meatball marinara pizza, or 1,289 calories in a McDonald’s Big Tasty with bacon and large fries.
But the evidence shows that it’s not the blowouts but the day-to-day that is making us put on weight as we age.
Most of us consume an excess of 200 to 300 calories daily, and it’s the creep of these daily slight overindulgences rather than the occasional binge that adds up to what Benelam terms Britain’s “consumption problem”.
So, what have I learnt, if anything? Laziness meant I was eating fewer filling vegetables at lunchtime, with the knock-on effect of being hungry and wanting a sweet snack soon after. When I changed this, I wasn’t hungry and didn’t get many afternoon sugar cravings. Dull but true. And look, this wasn’t a diet, but after five days, I’ve dropped 1.8kg (4lb).
FAST FACTS OBESITY
The 2021 Health Survey for England estimated that 25 per cent of adults are obese and a further 38 per cent are overweight, but not obese. A BMI of over 25 is classified as overweight. Over 30 is obesity.
Men are more likely than women to be overweight or obese (68 per cent of men and 59 per cent of women).
People aged 45-74 are the most likely to fall into this category. But 10 per cent of reception-age children (4- and 5-year-olds) are also obese. And a further 12 per cent are overweight.
As children get to Year 6 (age 10-11) that rises to 23 per cent obese and 14 per cent overweight.