Use your brain to avoid weight gain—by fighting portion inflation

Ann MacDonald

Contributor, Harvard Health

When I was growing up, my parents had a simple rule when it came to food: “Finish everything on your plate.” We had to sit at the table until we did.

They meant well. They wanted us to understand that food should not go to waste. The problem with this advice—and I’m sure I’m not the only American who grew up with it—is that we learned early on to eat everything put in front of us when we sat down to meals. Then the size of the plates grew—and so did the amount of food we consumed.

It’s called portion inflation. Take a look at the illustration at left. It’s based on an analysis published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association which found that typical restaurant portion sizes today are two to eight times as large as those in 1955. Back then, people who consumed a typical American meal (a hamburger, French fries, and a soda) had only one portion size to pick from. Today we can choose from multiple portion sizes: reasonable, big, bigger, and ridiculous (as I’ve come to think of the sizes listed in that last column).

Portion size matters. The bigger the portion, the more calories you can consume. Here’s an example, using a table of calorie information available online in the nutrition section at McDonald’s. By choosing the largest size in each category, you’ll end up consuming nearly triple the number of calories in a meal as you would if you chose the smallest portions.

Food Smallest size/calories Largest size/calories
Hamburger 3.5 oz/250 calories 11.1 oz/750 calories
French fries 2.5 oz/230 calories 5.4 oz/500 calories
Coca Cola 12 oz/110 calories 32 oz/310 calories
Total calories 590 calories 1,560 calories


Partly as a result of portion inflation, we’re eating more. Dietary surveys indicate that, on a per capita basis, Americans consumed 200 calories more per day in the 1990s than they did in the 1970s. That may not sound like a lot, but over time extra calories translate into extra pounds. Some experts calculate that people who add 150 calories a day to their diets, without increasing physical activity to burn those calories off, will gain as many as 15 pounds in a year.
I was thinking about all this recently when I read through the new U.S. Dietary Guidelines. The new guidelines include a key message for the two-thirds of Americans who are overweight or obese: Consume fewer calories. Or, as The New York Times recently headlined its own article: “Government’s Dietary Advice: Eat less.”

Easy to say, harder to do—as anyone who has ever tried to diet will attest. To me, the government’s advice to just “eat less” sounds a lot like the 1980s slogan, “Just Say No” to drug abuse. The implication is that people can overcome both excess weight and drug addiction through willpower alone. Yet appetite, like addiction, reflects a learning process that becomes ingrained over time and is associated in the brain with certain external cues. That’s why the sight of a full plate of food will prompt us to begin eating and the sight of a clean plate will help us know when to stop. The more we see, the more we eat.

One weight loss technique, which I’ve already blogged about, is to eat more slowly so that the chemical messages that convey “I’m full” have a chance to travel from your gut to your brain.

You can also change some of the external cues that your brain relies on to determine whether you are full. In the process, you may be able to eat less. Here are a few techniques specifically designed to counter portion inflation and trick your brain into thinking “the plate’s clean so I must be full.”

At home

  • Substitute smaller tableware for larger pieces, thereby physically limiting the amount of food you can consume at one sitting. Some examples:
  • Serve food on salad plates rather than dinner plates.
  • Pour soda, beer, and other calorie-laden beverages into juice glasses rather than goblets.
  • Pour wine into a champagne glass rather than a wine glass.
  • Scoop ice cream into a cup rather than a bowl.

At restaurants

  • Choose the smallest portions offered on the menu whenever possible.
  • If you don’t have a choice—and the food arrives on a large plate—ask for a doggie bag up front. Then place half of the food into the doggie bag before you start eating.

For more information

Check out calorie counts before you go to a restaurant by visiting the nutrition information posted on sites such as McDonald’s or Pizza Hut. You can also visit sites like CalorieKing, which lists thousands of foods sold in multiple locations.


  1. stan

    I eat slow, but I still eat too much! 🙂
    I think it’s a habit from years of over eating!
    I think it could be considered an addiction.
    My first step is to admit I have a problem! 🙂
    This post has opened my eyes though, Thanks!

  2. Gpji Berries

    very nice your article, I hope you are very helpful tips everyone. thanks

  3. Steve Carson


    I liked your article about “Use your brain to avoid weight gain—by fighting portion inflation”
    If you would like to see some free documentaries like “supersize me” again go to
    and paste a keyword (Maybe try “weight gain”) into the custom search engine, hit search,
    then pick one of the documentaries to watch.


  4. naya

    nice tips. i like your tips about how to eat smaller portion on each meal we have. but i think that will be hard to do if we do it as first. thank you for sharing this information. will keep reading this blog.

  5. Lee Murray

    Wow Ann!

    What an absolutely horrifying article. I think more of us need to look at these types of statistics, as the Western World seems to have gone into culinary autopilot. Seriously, it scares me how much most of us are willing to accept as normal. 44 ounces of Coke? And how many people suck all 44 ounces down and then go back for a refill? More than a couple.

    Add to our atrocious diets all the chemicals we’re pumping ourselves full of (alcohol, tobacco, drugs (prescription and otherwise), and energy drinks like Jack3d and Red Bull, and its easy to see that we’ve got a major crisis on our hands.

    Thank you for sharing your words of wisdom with us, Ann. We need more people like you to help educate the masses.

  6. Joanna S.

    I think there was an edu-film made called “Upsize Me” a long time ago that talks about how upsizing the meals in fast foods, how it has contributed largely to the obesity in children. Eating in fast foods somehow encourages us to eat faster too which does not do any good. I lost 12 pounds in 2 weeks just by cutting down on snacks, junk food and sodas. I didn’t even exercise regularly! I take an apple a day for snacks and 3 cups of green tea for my beverage. Can’t live without my green tea. Check out its many healthy benefits here and how it is good for losing weight. [URL removed by moderator]

  7. slabire

    very very true. thanks for details of the post. I’m using Herbalife from to control my calories.

  8. Rob

    The very first thing that you’ll have to decide upon when forming a weight training routine is how many reps you will perform.
    The general guidelines for this are that for pure strength gains, you should aim for the lower rep range as this will allow you to lift the most weight. Use 3-6 reps per set and push as hard as possible.
    If you’re someone who’s more focused on muscle size on the other hand, you’ll want to maintain a higher overall time under tension on your weight lifting exercises, therefore a slightly higher rep range will be superior. Aim for 6-10 reps instead and you’ll be seeing the progress you want.

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  9. Eric

    I think this approach to weight loss is a good one. Alot of things are happening at the same time that you should be aware of. Breaking old habits takes determination and time. The bottom line to weight loss is Reduce Your Calorie Intake ( amount of food you eat) over a period of three weeks consistently. Then stick with it.

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  10. SandwichINK

    Very interesting article! And so true. Several of my extended family are still dealing with the issues of weight control that originated from having those rules of having to finish your plate. As a result, our policy with our kids was that they did NOT have to finish. A policy I’ve never regretted. Thanks for some great tips.

  11. Nicci

    Thanks for the interesting post I dont feel so bad anymore and see lots of tips I can apply.

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  12. Andrea

    I grew up with “eat everything on your plate” rule. But only a few years ago I realized that I can (and I do) split the meal in 2 and eat the second half after about 2 hours since the lunch time.
    Many times I’m not in the mood to eat it anymore and I put it aside for the dogs. This way I don’t feel guilty that I throw away the food and I loose weight.
    Also I eat more slowly and I count how many times I chew my food. I try to make it to 30 times, but I can’t do it for every bite.

    Great article by the way. Thanks for the insights.
    Andrea T.

  13. Kaye

    Aside from eating a well balanced diet, breaking 3 meals for the whole day into 5 smaller portion meals will surely prevent unhealthy weight gain because this stabilizes your body insulin.

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  14. edward

    You have most likely heard that you are what you eat. This is true when it comes to controlling your anxiety and depression. A good many people who are depressed feel this way because of the diet that they consume. If you are eating foods laden with fat, sugar and other non nutritious substances, stop and start eating healthier. You may notice a change in your mood just by eating the right foods.

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  15. Laurence Girard

    The illustration you posted from the Journal of the American Dietetic Association was really interesting and it reminded me of the documentary “Supersize Me.”

    Every time this man would order a meal at McDonalds, he would be asked if he wanted to “Super-Size” his meal. As it turns out, McDonalds employees are actually trained to say that to get people to buy larger sizes of soda and fries. This is a perfect example of how portion inflation (as you rightly call it) has happened over the years and is a contributing cause of the obesity epidemic.

    The portions served at restaurants are very large and people usually eat whatever’s on there plate…as do I sadly enough. I loved your suggestion of ordering a doggie bag ahead of time. This encourages you to stop eating when you’re full and eat the rest later. I’m definitely going to try that the next time I’m at a restaurant.

    I’m a pre-med student at the Harvard Extension School and I believe we’re having a nutrition crisis in this country. I started a health blog that’s dedicated to teaching people about nutrition and why it’s important for their health.

    Anyway, I really loved reading this article and I’m going to read some more tomorrow because your health tips are great. Is there any way I can subscribe? It’s getting late here and I’m actually about to head to bed, but when I’m eating my oatmeal with goji berries and green tea in the morning I’ll come back and read some of your tips!


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    • Ann MacDonald
      Ann MacDonald

      Hi Laurence. and thanks for mentioning the documentary, “Super Size Me.” I’d forgotten about that. For those who haven’t seen the film, it’s about a young man who decides to only eat the largest portions at McDonald’s for 30 days. Predictably, he gains a lot of weight and becomes unhealthy. At one point a nutritionist joins him at McDonald’s and points out that if he’d eat the smallest option in a category, he could do that once in a while. Well worth seeing. Thanks for writing, Laurence! And good luck with your studies.


      p.s. Regarding your question about if there’s a way to subscribe: Absolutely! If you or anyone wants to subscribe to any of our publications, or see our healthy eating advice, visit our main Harvard Health Publishing page.

  16. Jeff Pheps

    Eating more slowly is an awesome tip. So many people in today’s hurry up lifestyle will eat so fast they barely know what they are consuming. Slow down, enjoy your food and you will find that you will tend to eat much less.

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