Food Portions - How Much Is Enough?
Have you noticed that the size of muffins, candy bars, and soft
drinks has grown over the years? How about portions of restaurant
foods like pasta dishes, steaks, and french fries? As portion sizes
grow, people tend to eat more-often more than they need to stay
Larger food portions have more calories. Eating more calories than
you need may lead to weight gain. Too much weight gain can put you
at risk for weight-related diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart
disease, and some cancers.
Managing your weight calls for more than just choosing a healthful
variety of foods like vegetables, fruits, grains (especially whole
grains), beans, and low-fat meat, poultry, and dairy products. It
also calls for looking at how much and how often you eat. This brochure
shows you how to use serving sizes to help you eat just enough for
What's the difference between a portion and a serving?
A "portion" is how much food you choose to eat, whether
in a restaurant, from a package, or in your own kitchen. A "serving"
is a standard amount set by the U.S. Government, or sometimes by
others for recipes, cookbooks, or diet plans. There are two commonly
used standards for serving sizes:
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Guide Pyramid
is a healthy eating plan for people ages 2 and over. It shows the
recommended number of servings to eat from each of five food groups
every day to meet your nutrition needs, and it defines serving sizes.
(For more information, see The Food Guide Pyramid under Additional
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Nutrition Facts Label is
printed on most packaged foods. It tells you how many calories and
how much fat, carbohydrate, sodium, and other nutrients are in one
serving of the food. The serving size is based on the amount of
food people say they usually eat in one sitting. This size is often
different than the serving sizes in the Food Guide Pyramid.
How do I know how big my portions are?
For foods that don't have a Nutrition Facts label, such as ground
beef, use a kitchen scale to measure the food in ounces (according
to the Food Guide Pyramid, one serving of meat, chicken, turkey,
or fish is 2 to 3 ounces).
The portion size that you are used to eating may be equal to two
or three standard servings. Take a look at this Nutrition Facts
label for cookies. The serving size is two cookies, but if you eat
four cookies, you are eating two servings-and double the calories,
fat, and other nutrients in a standard serving.
To see how many servings a package contains, check the "servings
per container" listed on the Nutrition Facts label. You may
be surprised to find that small containers often have more than
one serving inside.
Learning to recognize standard serving sizes can help you judge
how much you are eating. When cooking for yourself, use measuring
cups and spoons to measure your usual food portions and compare
them to standard serving sizes from Nutrition Facts labels for a
week or so. Put the measured food on a plate before you start eating.
This will help you see what one standard serving of a food looks
like compared to how much you normally eat.
Another way to keep track of your portions is to use a food diary.
Writing down when, what, how much, where, and why you eat can help
you be aware of the amount of food you are eating and the times
you tend to eat too much. The chart below shows what 1 day of a
person's food diary might look like.
After reading the food diary, you can see that this person chose
sensible portion sizes for breakfast and lunch-she ate to satisfy
her hunger. She had a large chocolate bar in the afternoon for emotional
reasons-boredom, not in response to hunger. If you tend to eat when
you are not hungry, try doing something else, like taking a break
to walk around the block or call a friend, instead of eating.
By 8 p.m., this person was very hungry and ate large portions of
higher-fat, higher-calorie foods. If she had made an early evening
snack of fruit or pretzels, she might have been less hungry at 8
p.m. and eaten less. She also may have eaten more than she needed
because she was at a social event, and was not paying attention
to how much she was eating. Through your diary, you can become aware
of the times and reasons you eat too much, and try to make different
choices in the future.
How can I control portions at home?
You do not need to measure and count everything you eat for the
rest of your life-just long enough to recognize standard serving
sizes. Try these other ideas to help you control portions at home:
- Take a standard serving out of the package and eat it off a
plate instead of eating straight out of a large box or bag.
- Avoid eating in front of the TV or while busy with other activities.
Pay attention to what you are eating and fully enjoy the smell
and taste of your foods.
- Eat slowly so your brain can get the message that your stomach
- Take seconds of vegetables or salads instead of higher-fat,
higher-calorie parts of a meal such as meats or desserts.
- When cooking in large batches, freeze food that you will not
serve right away. This way, you won't be tempted to finish eating
the whole batch before the food goes bad. And you'll have ready-made
food for another day. Freeze in single-meal-sized containers.
- Try to eat three sensible meals at regular times throughout
the day. Skipping meals may lead you to eat larger portions of
high-calorie, high-fat foods at your next meal or snack. Eat breakfast
- Keep snacking to a minimum. Eating many snacks throughout the
day may lead to weight gain.
- When you do have a treat like chips, cookies, or ice cream,
eat only one serving, eat it slowly, and enjoy it!
Is getting more food for your money always a good value? Have you
noticed that it only costs a few cents more to get a larger size
of fries or soft drink? Getting a larger portion of food for just
a little extra money may seem like a good value, but you end up
with more food and calories than you need.
Before you buy your next "value combo," be sure you are
making the best choice for your health and your wallet. If you are
with someone else, share the large-size meal. If you are eating
alone, skip the special deal and just order what you need.
How can I control portions when eating out?
Research shows that the more often a person eats out, the more body
fat he or she has. Try to prepare more meals at home. Eat out and
get take-out foods less often. When you do eat away from home, try
these tips to help you control portions:
Share your meal, order a half-portion, or order an appetizer as
a main meal.
Take half or more of your meal home. You can even ask for your
half-meal to be boxed up before you begin eating so you will not
be tempted to eat more than you need.
Stop eating when you begin to feel full. Focus on enjoying the
setting and your friends or family for the rest of the meal.
Avoid large beverages, such as "supersize" soft drinks.
They have a large number of calories. Order the small size, choose
a calorie-free beverage, or drink water with a slice of lemon.
When traveling, bring along nutritious foods that will not spoil
such as fresh fruit, small cans of fruit, peanut butter and jelly
(spread both thin) sandwiches, whole grain crackers, carrot sticks,
air-popped popcorn, and bottled water. If you stop at a fast food
restaurant, choose one that serves salads, or order the small burger
with lettuce and tomato. Have water or nonfat milk with your meal
instead of a soft drink. If you want french fries, order the small
The amount of calories you eat affects your weight and health. In
addition to selecting a healthful variety of foods, look at the
size of the portions you eat. Choosing nutritious foods and keeping
portion sizes sensible may help you reach and stay at a healthy