Portion Sizes vs. Serving Sizes: Confused? Read on…

Posted on Monday, March 9th, 2009
Written by: Angela, Nutritionist

Seattle Nutritionist Angela Pifer writes:

It’s a fact: most people tend to underestimate the amount of food they eat and tend to overestimate the recommended serving sizes for many foods. In a land of super-sized meals it is easy to understand why.

Most consumers believe that a serving size is 1.5 to 2 times larger than it actually is. How do you test this? First, guess how much pasta you usually eat. Then serve your plate as usual and then measure it! Compare it to the label serving size. How close was your calculation? Chances are, you’re eating two, three, four or more times the amount on the label.

Portion and serving sizes may sound like the same thing but, for many Americans, they are actually very different.

A “serving” size is a unit of measure based on nutrition needs. A “portion” can be thought of as the amount of a specific food a person eats for meals, snacks or other eating occasions.

The serving size listed on a label is not meant to provide advice on how much of certain foods to eat in order to achieve a healthful diet. Serving sizes are not set in stone….the typical American eater is not going to be satisfied with a steak the size of a deck of cards and ½ cup of rice. I mean, come on, how many of us eat just two cookies?

A serving size is simply a unit of measure; such as cups, ounces or pieces to make the food label serving sizes consumer friendly. Knowing what constitutes a serving size versus a portion size, being cognizant of what a serving size looks like and determining how many servings are right for you is all very important in achieving both a healthful and satisfying diet. Seems like too much to bite off? Read on for more insight and strategies.

The government uses the image of a food pyramid to describe the amount of serving sizes the ‘average’ consumer should consume for a healthy diet and lifestyle; remember that these are based on serving sizes. This is where it gets hairy: these are not always the same quantities as the serving sizes listed on the food labels. For instance, both resources list ½ cup as the recommended serving for canned fruits and vegetables.

However, for some foods, the serving sizes differ because these two tools have different purposes. The government describes serving units for primarily “simple” food items, such as 1 cup raw leafy greens; ½ cup cooked dry beans; 1 cup of milk or yogurt; or 2 tablespoons peanut butter. This method is used so consumers can easily remember what counts as a serving for major food groups and to help them build a healthful diet.

On the other hand, then Nutrition Facts panel serving unit is specific for each product category. The intent is to help consumers compare nutrient information between a number of choices of products that fall in the same food group. The food label servings can also apply both to dishes combining several food groups (such as frozen lasagna) and to “simple” foods like canned vegetables.

Some consumers perceive the bread, cereal, rice and pasta group in the Pyramid as a real challenge. Many consumers believe the suggested 6-11 servings of grains are too much for them to eat on a daily basis. At the crux of this quandary may be that consumers are not familiar with what constitutes a serving size for grains. For instance, a consumer may have noted that 2 slices of bread or 1 cup of cooked pasta equaled a serving, when in fact the Pyramid indicates 1 slice of bread or ½ cup of cooked pasta is a serving. According to USDA food consumption surveys, individuals’ typical portion sizes for grain products equaled 1-1/2 to 2 food guide serving units.

The reality is that most of us will not have a Nutrition Facts panel at our fingertips at each eating occasion, particularly if we are eating at a restaurant or consuming foods that were not prepared by us.

Yet, there are many tips to keep in mind to be sensible about portion sizes and diet. Two of the more important factors to keep in mind are that a healthful eating plan can and should include all the foods you like and it should include a variety of different foods.

Here are some sensible tips for not “overdoing it:

1. Order once, enjoy twice. Eat half your steak at the restaurant. Take the rest home to savor tomorrow is a steak salad with juicy-ripe tomatoes or a beef and broccoli stir-fry. At a restaurant, two diners could split the steak entrée and each order a salad or vegetable side dishes.

2. Snack from a plate, not from the bag, to stay aware of how much you are eating.

3. It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to get the signal that your stomach’s had enough. Savor foods slowly-you’ll enjoy it more, eat less and avoid feeling stuffed.

Best yet learn to recognize what a serving size looks like on a plate, in your hand and in a bowl. To help visualize a tablespoon or other common portion sizes, measure it out and compare its size to a common item like a quarter or deck of playing cards. Soon it will become second nature.

Angela Pifer, MSN, CN Seattle Nutritionist

Seattle Nutrition Programs – Get the daily support that gets you results! – Locally and nationally through Skype.

Categories: Balancing Meals

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