Stuffed: The weighty truth behind restaurant portion sizes

There are more than 300 million people living in America, and of those, more than 200 million are overweight or obese. Yet, oddly, restaurants continue to bury their plates under oversized portions of rich, indulgent foods. The reason? It comes down to what nutritionists refer to as the "fixed stomach," the idea that people can eat only so much food before they explode. So by convincing us that bigger truly is better, restaurants can sell us more food — at higher prices — and trick us into eating ourselves into a calorie-induced coma. (Ever notice how you feel the need to nap after a holiday dinner? That’s your coma.)

So check it out: According to a 2002 study, the average steak is 144 percent bigger than the USDA recommends. The average muffin is 233 percent bigger. That’s a lot of extra calories moving through your stomach. With portions like these, it’s no wonder we have a hard time staying slim. Take a look at some of the other oversized meals that are wedging themselves between you and the body you should have.


Proper serving size: Bagel, 2 ounces
Au Bon Pain Cinnamon Crisp Bagel
4.4 ounces
410 calories
7 grams fat (4 grams saturated)
25 grams sugars

There’s a reason we say "bagels are bogus" in "Eat This, Not That!" and it’s because they’re essentially meal-sized servings of bread. It’s taking what should be a side dish, and turning it into the main course. That means you’re starting your day with a massive hunk of refined carbohydrates — fast-burning energy that passes through your stomach quickly and creates a rapid rise-and-fall in blood sugar. That’s why you get that empty-stomach feeling an hour before lunch. And this particular bagel from Au Bon Pain has more sugar than a Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar. You’re far better off with a 300-calorie Egg McMuffin from McDonald’s.

Proper serving size: Muffin, 2 ounces
Dunkin Donuts Blueberry Muffin
5 ounces
480 calories
15 grams fat (1.5 gram saturated)
46 grams sugars

Muffins are basically cupcakes dressed like breakfast. You think blueberries make them healthy? Not even close. No fruit in the world can compensate for the dearth of nutrients in this hunk of breakfast cake. It has scarcely any protein or fiber and as much sugar as 2½ scoops of Ben & Jerry’s Vanilla Ice Cream. If your goal is to blow up like a giant blueberry — like Violet in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" — then by all means eat one of these every day. But for those of us trying to avoid the muffin top, we’ll pass on the breakfast dessert.


Proper Serving Size: Burger, 5 ounces
Burger King A1 Steakhouse XT
12 ounces
970 calories
61 grams fat (23 grams saturated)
1930 mg sodium

The number of calories in an average burger and fries has increased by 165 calories since 1977. That means that if you eat this meal just twice a week, a year later you’ll weigh 5 pounds more than the same person eating the same meal 30 years ago. And this seems all-too-obvious when you look at burgers like Hardee’s Thickburger (12 ounces), McDonald’s Angus Deluxe (11 ounces), and Wendy’s Double Baconator (11 ounces).

The good news is every fast food chain also sells a burger that’s properly portioned; they just usually give them names like “Junior” to make them seem less appealing. Burger King’s Whopper Jr. is only 5 ounces. That’s what you should be eating. If you order it without mayonnaise, it will cost you a mere 260 calories. That means the extra beef on this XT burger is costing you more than 700 calories.

Proper Serving Size: Sandwich, about 5 ounces
Panera Whole Italian Combo Sandwich
17.75 ounces
1040 calories
45 grams fat (17 g saturated)
3090 mg sodium

This is exactly why we have such a hard time eating indulgent foods; our portions are massively inflated. In addition to lean ham, turkey, and roast beef, this sandwich carries a load of fatty salami. That wouldn’t be so bad if not for the fact that it was 3½ times the size of the USDA’s recommended portion. Now imagine if this sandwich were sized properly. At 5 ounces, it would have fewer than 300 calories. You throw an apple next to that and you’ve got a perfect meal.


Proper serving size: Smoothie, 8 ounces
Smoothie King The Activator Strawberry
40 ounces
1112 calories
2 grams fat (0 g saturated)
178 grams sugars

Again — this should be healthy, but because it’s five times the USDA’s recommendation, it’s actually a serious threat to your physique. This is one of Smoothie King’s protein smoothies, intended for people who work out. But here’s the thing: Even a hard workout doesn’t necessitate 38 grams of protein, which is the amount that comes in this smoothie. At most, you need about 20, and you can probably get by with far less. What you absolutely don’t need are the 178 grams of sugar — that’s as much as you’d find in 8 packages of Kit Kat candy bars! What’s challenging at Smoothie King is that even a small smoothie is 20 ounces. If you want to close in on the USDA’s recommendation, you’ve got to order a small and split it with a friend.


Proper serving size: Steak, 4 ounces raw
Outback Steakhouse The Melbourne
20 ounces
1009 calories
58 grams fat (23 g saturated)
904 mg sodium

This is 1.25 pounds of beef. That’s more than the weight of a football. What Outback calls a Melbourne is actually a porterhouse, meaning it combines a strip steak with a big hunk of fatty tenderloin. And beef fat, as we know, is highly saturated, which is how you wind up with more saturated fat than the USDA recommends you eat in an entire day. Ideally steak should be thought of as a side dish or single ingredient rather than a main course. A few slices of this steak on a sandwich or even draped over a bed of steamed vegetables would make for a reasonable — and nutritious — meal.

Proper serving size: Pasta, 1 cup
Olive Garden Capellini Pomodoro, dinner size
3.5 cups
840 calories
17 grams saturated fat
1250 mg sodium

Why must restaurants force us to eat bigger portions at dinner? The lunch portion of this meal is big enough — it’s twice as big as the USDA recommends. But this one? It’s just absurd — 3½ times a healthy portion of pasta. And really that’s only the tip of the iceberg at Olive Garden. The Italian eatery also offers unlimited breadsticks — which cost you 150 calories apiece — and unlimited salad — which delivers about 350 calories per bowl. And their latest promotional campaign? “Never Ending Pasta Bowl.” Just think — a couple breadsticks, a bowl of salad, and a couple bowls of pasta, and you’re facing something around 2,500 calories in one sitting.


Proper serving size: Cake, 2.7 ounces
Proper serving size: Ice Cream, ½ cup
Red Lobster Chocolate Wave
8 ounces cake
4 cups ice cream
1490 calories
81 grams fat (25 g saturated)
172 grams carbohydrates

Fifteen-hundred calories in a slab of cake with ice cream? That’s a dangerous portion even if you skip dinner and go straight to dessert. The thing is, dessert is supposed to be a small treat, yet in the battle to justify dinner-sized prices, restaurants have begun serving desserts in dinner-sized portions. Add a couple of these things to your weekly diet and you can expect to put on about 3½ pounds a month.

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