Huge portions of junk food - the 7 worst culprits

Written by on Wednesday, 10 August 2016.
Tagged: alcohol, guides, health, healthy eating, junk food, obesity, portion size, soft drinks

Huge portions of junk food - the 7 worst culprits
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Nutritionists know that portion sizes have increased over the past 20 years. What’s more they are contributing to our obesity crisis.

However, it’s not just the amount, but the type, that’s the problem. It’s not those core foods such as vegetables or meat that are the culprits. It’s the large serves of junk foods that are the real cause.

clipboardThis post has been sponsored by MLA. 



So how big is too big?

In Australia there are almost no formal studies on how much discretionary foods we actually consume. Discretionary, being the technical term for what you and I call junk food, extras, snacks or treats as well as much of what’s defined as fast food such as pizza, chips, hot dogs and burgers. See my post on Discretionary foods here. These are the foods we don’t really need but we like to have such as cake, chips, chocolate or wine.

So ask yourself “how much more than a standard serve* do I eat?” How big is that wedge of pizza really? Or how many potato crisps did I tuck into whilst immersed in that movie?

* A standard serve is a reference amount such as a bowl of breakfast cereal that weighs 40 grams. Or a serve of cake, chips, sweet biscuits or wine that contributes about 600kJ/150 Calories.

Dr Anna Rangan from the University of Sydney looked at how big our portions are and how they compare to the reference serve sizes, which are specified in the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating.

These guidelines define a serve of discretionary foods as anything that provides about 600 kilojoules (150 Calories). This translates to one 40 gram doughnut or 1 small 40 g muffin or ¼ of a commercial pie or pastie.

She showed that we now eat way too much sweet treat foods (chocolate, ice cream, muffins, cakes, pastries etc.,) as well as fast foods that double as dinner (e.g. pizza, hamburgers, pies and hot chips).

Here are the 7 problem foods which account for many of the huge portions we now consume.

7 problem foods

1. Alcohol

We love a sip of wine or beer but now these are consumed at around double the defined serve size so contribute additional empty kilojoules/Calories and alcohol that only compound our obesity problem.

Take a look at this comparison:

A standard 100 mL of dry wine has some 301 kJ and 10 grams of pure alcohol. But we now drink about three times as much, at 300 to 350 mL which translates to 900 to 1055 kJ of unwanted kilojoules and 30 grams of alcohol.

2. Muffins and cakes

Don’t fool yourself. Even if it’s got banana or blueberries, it’s still a ‘cake’ in the end. It’s the base of flour, fat and sugar that’s in every baked good that’s the problem.

Foods such as cakes and cake-type desserts (cheesecake, apple pie, sticky date) are a problem simply because of the sheer weight we consume. We’re eating more than twice the weight of a standard serve.

3. Potato chips and fries

Potato would be fine if we simply consumed it mashed, boiled or roasted. Kids already eat more than the standard size and men love a largish dollop on their plate. But when potatoes are transformed into fried chips and wedges, they get eaten in huge amounts. Usually with lots of salt or chicken salt! Think finger food at the extreme.

4. Pizza

We eat pizza in large portions, around three times more than we should. And it’s often high in fat, flour base and salt. All that processed meat (salami, bacon), all that cheese. And never a veg in sight.

5. Pies and pastries

A reference serve of a meat pie or pastie is only 60 g or about one-quarter! But we’re tucking into 95-110 g of them, almost twice as much. It’s the pastry, fat and sauce that all add up, plus the meat is not much and not great quality. Plus the accompanying chips.

6. Soft drinks

Soft drinks are consumed in too-large sizes – something most of us are well aware. Those massive containers at the movies and fast food outlets can contain huge amounts of sugar. See my post on sugary drinks. And despite these researchers controlling for under-reporters, I suspect many people don’t ‘recall’ all the soft drink they’ve consumed. It’s not easy to remember each and every thing you ate yesterday!

7. Fruit juice

Juice is usually consumed at double the standard reference size. While juice has no fat and is often extracted from fresh fruit, as at a juice bar, it still represents kilojoules/Calories and sugars that are over-consumed. It’s a real trap and I’ve talked about the problem with fruit juices before, you can happily drink half a glass or 125mL as ONE of your two serves of fruit a day – but not the generous 260mL juices we now slurp.

The bottom line

Those ‘extras’ are the real culprits in the obesity crisis and we’re eating way too much of them.

Dr Rangan’s study provides further evidence that we’re overdoing the junk food or extras and not consuming enough of the good foods we need for our health and for the growth of our children, such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, eggs, milk, yoghurt, cheese, nuts and fresh meats.

Meat often gets criticised and/or avoided but we don’t need huge slabs - just a palm-sized portion of red meat, 3 to 4 times a week, to meet our requirements for iron and zinc. Not forgetting protein, B12 and omega-3s which we think of as from oily fish but in fact the biggest portion in this country is derived from red meat.

In everyday terms, a palm-sized portion is approximately 150g raw or 130g cooked.

And it’s time to switch to more basic foods and less junk. For instance, enjoy a tub of yoghurt instead of a chocolate bar, have cheese on toast instead of a pie, toasted fruit bread instead of biscuits, a tub of fruit salad instead of lollies or a muffin.


Catherine attended the NSA symposium in Sydney on 26 April 2016 where she heard the above presentation by Dr Anna Rangan from the University of Sydney entitled “Portion size: What are Australians eating? An Analysis from the Australian Health Survey 2011-12”.

The symposium was sponsored by Meat and Livestock Australia and supported by Dietitians Australia, Nutrition Society of Australia, AusVeg and Dairy Australia.

Catherine Saxelby About the author

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