Healthy eaters are serving-size savvy

Americans are out of control - out of portion control, that is. When a boxed rice side dish claims to serve four, we scoff: Ha! Nobody eats just a half-cup of this stuff! And we have a belly laugh to think that a tiny bag of chips is supposed to serve more than one person. Who are they kidding? We know an individual serving when we see one.

Gail Underbakke, a registered dietitian with University Hospital and Clinics in Madison, helped State Journal staff compile a portion chart comparing serving sizes with household objects (see the front page of this section). These are just rough estimates, so obsessive readers can skip the volume comparisons and take the chart for what it is - one tool for judging portions.

Here are some other tips, all from Underbakke except where otherwise noted.

How do I figure out servings in pizza, pasta dishes or any thing else that combines food groups?

Take the food apart into components. A cup of tuna casserole, for example, would be about cup noodles (1 bread serving), cup or 3 ounces tuna (1 protein serving), cup onions, celery and peas (half a serving of vegetables) and a little fat from the cream soup. Apply the same rule to pizza, counting the crust as bread, cheese as dairy and toppings as meat and/or vegetables.

A 3 cup restaurant serving of spaghetti with tomato sauce has about 850 calories, compared to the recommend serving of 1 cup with 250 calories.

Olive Garden's is one of the more generous, with up to 5 cups of pasta in the restaurant's spaghetti and meatballs entr e. That's about 10 servings from the bread/grain group, which approaches the maximum anyone should have in an entire day. Most people only need 6 to 9 servings per day. The maximum of 11 servings is for teenage boys and very active men, who have more muscle, which burns more calories than fat does. (Like the rich getting richer, the fit get fitter.)

What about those of us who don't want to carry a chart to a restaurant?

Use your hand for rough estimates: A fist is about a cup, a cupped hand cup, a thumb tip (nail up) 1 teaspoon and the thumb from the joint up about 1 tablespoon.

When dining out, ask your waiter/waitress to deliver a doggie bag with your meal, then pack up a third or more of your meal before you start eating. It's there if you're still hungry when your plate is empty, but you've created a barrier that will make you think twice about eating it if you're full.

At home, switch to lunch- size plates instead of dinner plates.

Should I starve myself all day so I can indulge for din ner at a restaurant or party?

No. This feast-or-famine approach leads to overeating, because you're ignoring internal cues that tell you when to start or stop eating.

First, the kinds of food that hold well for a long time, look appealing, and don't dry out, tend to have more fat. Unadorned steamed broccoli, for example, doesn't make the cut.

Second, the bigger the portion placed in front of us, the more we take. So diners at a buffet trough are more likely to take mega-helpings than those who are passed a bowl containing just a few servings.

Finally, there's the notion that I paid for this, so I'm going to get my money's worth.

Deborah Roussos, a registered dietitian and nutrition therapist with Group Health Cooperative, suggests a whole- grain variation on the American Plate method promoted by the American Institute of Cancer Research: Fill half your plate with veggies, a quarter with protein (such as lean meat, poultry, fish or soy products) and the remaining quarter with whole-grain carbohydrates (such as brown rice, whole-wheat dinner roll, bread or tortilla).

She modifies that approach for folks who aren't already on friendly terms with the vegetable group. The less drastic Peace Sign Diet calls for a plate divided into thirds for veggies, protein and carbs for dinner.

In either case, you're probably looking at more than the usual amount of vegetables. Now, adds Underbakke, if you eat the veggies first, you probably won't feel the need for seconds on the meat and starch.

Got a sports metaphor for the wide receivers at my training table?

Try the Quarterback Diet, a play passed on from Dr. Laurence Crocker of UW Health to former co-worker Roussos, who explains: Dish up your usual serving, then put a quarter back. This advice applies more to ice cream than steamed vegetables.

In cases where the Quarterback Diet would be frowned on, simply serve yourself less than usual and when you're done with that first helping, wait five minutes (talk amongst yourselves at the dinner table) before deciding if you need more, Roussos suggests. You're giving yourself permission to take seconds, but you're also giving your body time to catch up.

Contact Sandra Kallio at 252-6181 or .