Portion Size: Then and Now

By Ted

How does one cut portion size when in most of the western world portion size has grown exponentially in the last 20 or so years.

I remember when the 7-Eleven Big Gulp came on the scene in 1980 and how everyone was amazed that you could actually purchase a drink that size. It was 32 ounces back then, now you can buy a Super Big Gulp that’s a whopping 64 ounces.

No wonder there’s such a weight epidemic in many developed countries as people are constantly enticed with ever growing portions.

Here are some illustrations of just how portion sizes have changed in the last 20 years.

Take-away Coffees

Over 20 years ago before the concept of the coffee house, a takeaway coffee would generally come in a 7oz/200ml Styrofoam cup, so with some sugar and cream it averaged around 85 Calories. Now a consumer can be enticed with a 16oz/470ml version made mostly with milk which can top 480 Calories depending on the drink ordered.


Twenty years ago a small pack of chips (left) was just an ounce(30g) and yielded 150 Calories. Now most packs are either 1.8oz/50g with 250 Calories (center) or 3.5oz/100g containing 500 Calories (right).

Flavored Milk

363-Flavoured milk 20 yrs ago (220 cals) and today (440 cals)1.jpg

Chocolate milk used to be sold in 10oz/300ml bottles 20 years ago containing 220 Calories, but now the norm is around 20oz/600ml yielding 440 Calories.

Soft Drinks

365-Soft drink 20 yrs ago1.jpg

20 years ago is was common to only get a 12oz/390ml soda from a vending machine containing 160 Calories, but today it is more common to find machines dispensing 20oz/600ml bottles giving 245 Calories.

Why has this happened?

Amanda Clark, the Author of Portion Perfection, believes that it was driven by nothing but the almighty dollar. Companies realized if they increased portion size, they could increase the cost of the item. The larger portion size would entice the customer to spend more money causing the profit margins on the product to increase a lot while the company’s expenses on marketing, design, labor etc. only increased slightly. In some cases a consumer could get 50% more product for only 16% more money. Who could resist?

Unfortunately, as these portion sizes increased so has western society’s waistline.

Please check out Amanda Clark’s book: Portion Perfection. Photos and Calorie information shown were taken from the book (with permission). Check out other nutritional resources at www.greatideas.net.au


  1. KL

    I just recently began eating meat again after 11 years. I got a grilled chicken sandwich from Burger King and the thing looked the size of a football to me! I couldn’t finish it and thought no wonder everyone is so obese if this is considered a normal sized sandwich.

  2. lisab

    whenever i go to the movies, i always get the small soda, although the person always offers a large size for only 50 cents more. i never fall for it. i also just noticed a few monthes ago that i can never finish a medieum or large soda from mcdonalds. i could only finish less than half of it and if i had it sit in my room or kitchen for a while it would taste old and i wouldn’t drink it all. i could only finish the small size and be satisfied. i think my food portions are what’s getting me in trouble though…

  3. angie

    When I go to a fast food place (about once a month) we always joke with the counter person that the medium should be the large and the small should be the medium etc. Most of the time I order the kids sizes because they’re the correct portion sizes.

  4. MC

    Interestingly, CJ, your comment actually seems to underscore how tough it it is to resist eating what’s put in front of you, regardless of what we “should” do when faced with a too-large serving. Your strategy of choosing smaller portion packages is, I’m sure, an effective one (helps me, too) and speaks to the possibility that many of us need such structure to help us recalibrate our sense of reasonable portions. The content of what we eat, though, is still an issue, too.

  5. Healthy Weight Loss Girl

    It really is sad how much portion sizes have grown. And a lot of the fast food restaurants encourage this habit by making everything supersized!

  6. Herbal Remedies Girl

    Portion sizes have grown and that is why a lot of the population is overweight. Being able to control ones portion sizes is the key to weightloss for many people. It is something that is so simple yet a lot of people are hesitant to consume smaller meals more frequently throughout the day.

  7. Sue

    Appetite suppressants help me keep my cravings and portions under control so I can moderate calories.

  8. jkfitness

    Don’t forget the role of government and biotechnology in this. No, I’m not a conspiracy theorist either. Advances in animal husbandry and technology have significantly increased our ability to produce massive amounts of grain and feedlot animals in small spaces and short periods of time. What happens to all the excess? It’s got to go somewhere. Food manufacturers, supermarkets and restaurants can get their ingredients cheaper when they “buy in bulk”. So they do and it ends up on our plate.

  9. Georgine

    …or on the brink of dying due to obesity. And then there are the obese who are malnutritioned inspite of their excessive weight. Very common in western ‘civilizations’.

  10. TrainerBoh

    A trick that many of my clients use routinely when going out to dinner is to ask for each course to be “cut in half”. That way they are able to take the rest home in a doggy bag for leftovers. This is especially useful if they are eating healthy to begin with.

  11. Allison

    Portions are so funny. I get made fun of all the time from family and friends because they call me a half-eater. Because typically I only eat about half what is on my plate when eating, especially when eating out. I just always operated under the notion of eat until you are full. I stop because I get easily bored with eating one thing. I like to have a lot of different types of food on my plate to keep me occupied.

    I think this way of eating helps me to control my portions, which in the US are hefty.

  12. Sugar Plum Fairy

    This is so true! When I started calorie counting to lose weight, it was astonishing to me how ‘large’ everything had become and how small actual portions are supposed to be. It’s what I address in my own blog: http://www.babyboomersdiet.blogspot.com Americans and now other countries too, are completely out of control with our eating.

  13. Erin

    I want to introduce you to a gimmick-free healthy meal replacement program that does the portion controlling for you called Seattle Sutton’s Healthy Eating. As the founder’s granddaughter, I have grown up watching my Grandma’s dream of providing fresh, delicious meals to anyone who wants to lose weight or just simply eat healthy come true. Our program is convenient and eliminates all planning, shopping, and cooking-we do it all for you!

  14. Buy Stemulite

    I noticed this a long time ago in my lunches. I was taking lunches to work that were huge. Since, I never take more than a half sandwich and fruit.

    Moreover, when my wife and I go out to eat, we make it a point to always leave enough on our plate for lunch the next day. I find that to be a good rule of thumb.

  15. Tina

    All restaurants are in competition with the ones down the street. If they could offer more than their competitor, they obviously will have more customers. If you notice the prices on main courses haven’t changed much, it is the sides that are purchased seperately that digs into the pocket book. So in my opinion, if the restaurants can get you into the door offering bigger portion sizes on a steak, you then may feel more likely to order an appetizer or a dessert.

    Also, does anyone remember the “french cuisine” portions of the ’80’s? That could have a lot to do with it as well. People got tired of paying a huge amount of money for a 2 ounce piece of meat with a little sauce and a few baby carrots.

  16. Todd

    That is so true! I really wish that side salads were “supersized.” Of course the benefits could be diminished very quickly by bad salad dressing choices.

    I usually make salads that weigh in at nearly 20 ounces and consist of lettuce or cabbage, tomatoes, celery, cucumber, and onions. The trick is to make a good tasting salad dressing that provides good coverage over all of the vegetables but does not add more than 150-200 calories. Typically, I will use one or two tablespoons of a heavy dressing like Caesar or Italian and then mix in 3 to 4 tablespoons of apple cider or red wine vinegar. Most of the dressing tends to fall to the bottom of the bowl, so you’re really not getting all the calories from the heavy dressing.

  17. Never teh Bride

    I’d be pleased to see evidence that there was demand for larger portions — perhaps a letter campaign, changes in sales figures, or something like that?

    It’s not difficult to see why companies might make the switch exclusive of consumer preference. Ingredients are inexpensive — the potential difference in price between a 20 oz. soda and a 12 oz. soda is huge compared to the difference in cost to produce the two sodas. It makes plenty of sense of the CEo’s perspective.

    If you’re a fan of capitalism in all its forms, the notion that companies are finding ways to increase profits exclusive of consumer demand shouldn’t bother you!

  18. Never teh Bride

    I was so happy when they came out with smaller sodas. I don’t drink a lot of soda, but when I do get a craving for one, I certainly am not going to finish a 20 oz. bottle! In fact, my favorite size is the new half cans they sell in the supermarket. To others, they’re tiny. To me, they’re perfect!

  19. Cari

    Also funny that they don’t supersize real food like fruit and vegetables!

  20. Venkat

    Whenever I travel to the US, I can never cease to marvel at the size of the portions. In most cases I can never finish what I order.

    The coffee in most case is large enough for a frugal person to have a bath in, I like to think humourously.

    Recently in UK in a cafe opp the Bard’s house in Strafford on Avon, myself and my wife were wondering what to order and looking with dismay at the portion size of each meal when the owner sensing our frame of mind, offered to do half portion of a certain Italian dish. We were both relieved and ordered one half portion and shared it between the two of us.


  21. Heather

    Absolutely! Most the upper scale restaurants out there have much smaller portions. We have a great place here in Atlanta, 5 Seasons, that uses local foods and reasonable portion sizes.

    Unfortunately, many believe that the places like Chili’s, Applebees, etc, are what a serving size should be– so now there is a public perception shift to battle so that just serving smaller portions isn’t very much an option. (Though was it Fridays that is doing the Right Size thing now)

  22. Heather

    Barry is a troll, based on his knee-jerk and pugnacious responses to many threads.

    I wouldn’t worry about it.

  23. anya

    Advertising can create demand by creating a percieved need where there is no need – or by preying on peoples fears. Look at women’s anti-aging products. Or the fact that 100 years ago nobody cared about halitosis or BO, now we have a huge industry based on demand created by advertsising in the 1920’s.

  24. Robert

    I am greatful that someone is talking about this. Portion size is indeed a major cause for the obesity epidemic.

    People need to eat better and exercise. Check out sites such as MyDiet.md; DrTangoDiet and MiDieta.com (in Spanish). There are several others that offer good advice and services.


  25. blah

    Why is it anti-capitalist to explain how companies have tried to increase profits?

    Do you have any evidence that companies were largely responding to pre-existing demand for increased portion sizes?

  26. Naomi

    $$$! I disagree with Barry–totally. In the fight for customers ($$$), particularly the fast-food chains went to bigger and bigger portions. The money-strapped folks are the larger portion of patrons at these drive-throughs and those so time-stressed that they eat “on the road.” Upper-drawer restaurants and a few other restauranters with a social conscience serve smaller portions, concentrating on fresh, nutritious, and delicious. One example in Michigan is “Flapjack” restaurants who reasonable portions at a reduced price; it’s a popular place for older folks but now also for forward-thinking youngers ones who see the trap in the “more is better” war out there.

  27. Spectra

    I guess I kind of grew up in the generation of super-sized portions…I really don’t remember many things being sold in smaller sizes. I do remember when Super Size meals came out at McDonald’s. My sister and I used to get the two cheeseburger meal and split the fries and drink because we figured no human could possibly eat ALL those fries on their own. I also sort of remember soda coming in 12 ounce bottles. My mom used to buy Pepsi Free in 12 ounce glass bottles that you actually had to take back to the store.

    I think a lot of people didn’t really “demand” bigger portion sizes; more like food companies thought they’d be a good idea and the consumers responded. Well, after the initial shock of being able to get sizes that big wore off, that is.

  28. Sary

    Someone had to start the ball rolling. Most people don’t go to a restaurant or a store asking if they are going to serve larger portions soon. I have a feeling that 20 years ago a company decided to test larger portions since proportionally, they would make more money that way. Then the people responded wanting more, so other companies jumped on the bandwagon. Many ideas do not start with the consumer; they start at the companies who test products on the consumer, who then decides whether he or she wants it or not. Maybe you can think about that and learn some constructive communication instead of either insulting someone else or bragging on yourself like most of your posts?

  29. Matt

    That is the very reason why we sould always order small portions. In a restaurant, it is usually enough to order half of the dish – they are way too big, especially in US.

  30. Cari

    Actually if you want a full expose on how money driven this whole portion size is read Michael Fumento’s book ‘Fat Land’ he gives a fascinating look at the politics behind how this came about.

    I’m intrigued (being a South African having recently moved to the USA) to see that American t-spoons are double the size of the standard South African ones. And American mug sizes hold about 50% more than the average South African one.

  31. Barry

    Anti-capitalist garbage. There was a demand for larger portion sizes, plain and simple. The companies responded to the demand.

    Likewise, there is a demand for food that comes in smaller portions, and in lower calories. Enter the 100 calorie “snack pack” of cookies.

    The almighty dollar as you call it is the engine that drives the world. Were it not for the almighty dollar you would not enjoy the luxury of writing and publishing your anti-capitalist drivel.

  32. The Health Blogger

    I’m so glad someone has actually touched upon this topic!

    It’s really bad how the portions are not only so big, thereby either forcing people to overeat or waste the food, but the actual quality of food seems to have deteriorated too.

    A good tip for those who can’t finish large portions is to share with others, that is if they aren’t by themselves, otherwise take the food away and finish it later. Now’s a good time to look at a picture of someone who is on the brink of dying due to starvation, might just make us realise the fortunate state we are in 🙂

  33. CJ

    It’s impressive how much portion sizes have grown. But you know I’ve learned that just because someone gives you that portion of something, doesn’t mean you have to eat all of it at once. Typically I buy snacks in the 100 calorie portions or in “kid size” portions and eat no more than one or two a day.