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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 healthy.
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 you.
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 Reading.)
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.
Knowing your Portion Sizes
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
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.
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).
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.
6 fl. oz.
and cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread with mustard,
tomato, and lettuce
Potato chips, baked
3 oz. turkey,
1 slice American cheese, 2 slices bread
1 small bag, 1/2 oz.
16 fl. oz.
||King size (40z.)
Apple pie with vanilla
2 cups lettuce, 6 oz. chicken,
6 tbs. dressing, 3/4 cup croutons
1/8 of 9-inch pie, 1 cup
12 fl. oz.
/out with friends
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.
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
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 is full.
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 every day.
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
Portions while 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
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
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
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 weight.
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U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND
National Institutes of Health
NIH Publication No. 03-5287