Shape Up & Drop 10™


Step 9 — How Do Your Portions Stack Up? — Using Servings Sizes to Help You Eat Healthfully

With restaurant and take-out food portions growing larger and larger, it's a challenge to keep from eating beyond your calorie needs. The government uses standard serving sizes to help people eat healthfully and make wise food choices, but often these serving sizes are different than the portions people usually eat. In Step 9, we will explain what standard serving sizes are and how they can help you eat nutritiously while losing weight. We'll also show you some creative ways to estimate portions that don't require a food scale or measuring cups. This can help you size up your portions when eating out.

  • What's a serving?
  • What's a portion?
  • Are the serving sizes of food we think we eat the same as what we really eat?
  • Some quick and easy ways to estimate portion sizes

What's a Serving?

A serving is a standard amount of food that is used to help people eat healthfully. The United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Guide Pyramid and the Nutrition Facts found on a food label use standard servings sizes. In many cases, the servings sizes in the Food Guide Pyramid and on the food label are the same (e.g., 1/2 cup canned fruit equals 1 serving). But sometimes the serving sizes differ because the Pyramid and the Nutrition Facts on a food label have different purposes. Knowing why the servings are different can take away some of the confusion about what serving sizes mean and how to use them.

The Food Guide Pyramid tells us how many servings to eat daily from five food groups so that our diets can be healthful. For example, the Pyramid suggests 6 to 11 servings from the Grains group each day. The number of servings to eat within that range depends on how many calories you need daily. A person eating 1600 calories should get 6 servings of grain products daily, while a person eating 2800 calories should get 11 servings each day.

Four factors were considered when determining the serving sizes in the Food Guide Pyramid:

  • Typical portions sizes, as reported in food consumption surveys
  • Nutrient content within each food group. For example, in the Milk group, serving size is based on the quantity of food that provides about the same amount of calcium as one serving, or 1 cup, of milk. One serving of natural cheese is 11/2 ounces since that's how much cheese contains a similar amount of calcium as 1 cup of milk. In the Meat and Beans group, serving size is based on the quantity of food that contains about the same amount of protein and minerals as 1 ounce of meat. That's why 1/2 cup of cooked dry beans, 1 egg and 2 tablespoons of peanut butter are each counted as one serving from this food group.
  • Amount of foods easily recognized by most consumers. For example, 1 medium piece of fruit is one serving in the Fruit group; 1/2 cup of cooked vegetables is one serving from the Vegetable group.
  • Amount traditionally used in previous food guides. For example, 1 slice of bread is one serving from the Grains group.

Using the serving sizes along with the recommended number of servings from each food group can help people meet their nutritional needs and select appropriate amounts of food to eat daily. To make it easier to do this, only a few, easy-to-remember serving sizes are used for each food group, and in many cases, these amounts of food are similar in nutrients.

For more information on servings sizes and the number of servings to eat from each food group in the Food Guide Pyramid, see "Recommended Daily Servings" in the Portion Control tutorial.

Serving sizes for the Nutrition Facts information on food labels:

  • Are based on the amount of food customarily eaten at one time, as reported in food consumption surveys.
  • Use common household measures, like cups, ounces or pieces, and gram weights.

The standard serving sizes used on food labels make it easier for consumers to compare the calorie and nutrition information of similar food products.

What's a Portion?

A portion is the amount of a food that a person actually eats for a meal or snack. It may be larger or smaller than the standard serving sizes used in the Food Guide Pyramid or the Nutrition Facts on a food label. In some cases, the amount of food typically eaten is larger than the standard serving size. For example, 1 ounce of bagel is one serving in the Food Guide Pyramid. But if you eat one bagel from a bakery or take-out establishment, you're getting a lot more than one serving-in fact, you're likely getting 4-5 servings from the Grains group. It's OK to eat more or less than the servings listed in the Food Guide Pyramid-if it's within reason. Just know how the amount you eat compares to the number of servings recommended each day.

Additionally, if you're eating a portion different than the serving size listed on the food label, you'll need to adjust the calorie and nutrition information accordingly. For example, if the serving size listed for bread is 1 slice and you eat 2 slices, then the calories and amounts of nutrients listed need to be doubled.

Serving Sizes: Perception vs Reality

Do you think you can accurately estimate the number of servings you eat daily from the five major food groups (grains; fruits; vegetables; milk products; and meat and beans group)? The USDA wanted to know just how good people are at estimating what they eat compared to what they actually eat. They gathered information on over 5,700 adults and compared what they estimated they ate to what they actually ate, as recorded in food diaries. The study found that people's perceptions of what they ate from the food groups are very different than what they actually ate. Adults underestimated their consumption of grain servings, as well as how much sweets and fats they ate. They overestimated their consumption of fruit and milk products and servings from the meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts group. For vegetables, women perceived that they ate more servings than they did, but males thought they ate slightly less than they actually ate. Why was perception different from reality? One reason may be that people don't fully understand what constitutes a serving. That's a good reason to review the Portion Control tutorial. Below, we'll help you to estimate the number of servings that you eat.

Estimating Portions the Easy Way

We don't expect you to carry around a food scale and measuring utensils, so instead, we've put together some quick ideas that can help you size up your portions when eating out. Next to the standard serving size of the food are suggestions for estimating one serving using some familiar non-food items that are similar in size to a serving of food.

If you choose to eat more than one serving, keep your portions reasonable and mentally note how many servings you're actually eating. We provide a serving size for fats so you have an idea of what that amount looks like, but, in general, use fats and sweets sparingly.


Sizing Up a Serving
Food Serving Size Looks Similar To:
Cheese1 1/2 ounces6 stacked dice
Your pointer finger
Meat, Poultry, Fish3 ounces cookedPalm of a woman's hand
1/2-inch stack of credit cards
Deck of cards
Ready-to-Eat Cereal1 oz (about 1 cup-check the Nutrition Facts panel on the food label)Rolled up pair of thick socks
Fruit1 mediumTennis ball
Tight fist
Sliced fruit, cooked cereal, pasta, rice, beans, vegetables1/2 cupCupped hand of an adult
Ice cream scoop
Raw leafy vegetables1 cupYour Fist
Baked potato1 mediumComputer mouse
Bagel1 ounceYo-yo
Hockey puck
Nuts1/3 cup Level (not rounded)handful
Salad Dressing1 tbspYour thumb
Oil, margarine, butter, mayonnaise1 tspYour thumb tip (from top of thumb to the first joint)

Summary

  • A serving is a standard amount of food that is used to help people eat healthfully. Both the Food Guide Pyramid and the Nutrition Facts found on food labels use standard serving sizes. In many cases, the serving sizes for the Pyramid and the Nutrition Facts are the same. But sometimes they differ, since the Pyramid and the Nutrition Facts on a food label serve different purposes.
  • Using the serving sizes of the Food Guide Pyramid along with the recommended number of servings from each of the five food groups can help you meet your nutritional needs and eat appropriate amounts of food for your calorie needs.
  • Using the serving sizes from the Nutrition Facts on a food label allows you to compare calories and nutrient content of similar food products.
  • A portion is the amount of food that a person actually eats for a meal or snack. It may be larger or smaller than the standard serving sizes. It is OK to eat amounts of food that are different than the standard serving sizes. Just note how the amount of food that you eat compares to the number of daily servings recommended in the Food Guide Pyramid. If you're using food labels, realize that the nutrition information will need to be adjusted if you eat more or less than the serving size listed on the Nutrition Facts.
  • The number of servings of food that you think you eat may not be the same as the actual amount that is eaten. Becoming familiar with standard serving sizes and how they look on a plate or in a bowl can help close the gap between the perception of servings eaten and reality. Review the Portion Control tutorial and "Sizing Up a Serving" in Step 9 for information and tips on serving sizes.

Quiz-Know Your Servings

Take this quiz to see how well you understand serving sizes. You'll find the information to answer these questions in Step 9 and the Portion Control tutorial.

  1. The USDA Food Guide Pyramid recommends how many servings a day from the Bread, Cereal, Rice & Pasta Group?
    1. 2-3 servings
    2. 3-6 servings
    3. 6-11 servings
    4. 8-14 servings
  2. 2 cups of pasta equals how many servings from the Bread, Cereal, Rice & Pasta Group group?
    1. 2 servings
    2. 4 servings
    3. 5 servings
    4. 6 servings
  3. A tossed salad made with 2 cups of romaine lettuce, 1/2 cup sliced cucumber and 1/2 cup cherry tomatoes equals how many servings from the Vegetable Group?
    1. 2 servings
    2. 3 servings
    3. 4 servings
    4. 5 servings
  4. Which of these choices is not equal to one serving from the Fruit Group?
    1. 4 ounces orange juice
    2. 6 ounces orange juice
    3. 1 medium apple
    4. 1/2 cup canned fruit
  5. In the Nutrition Facts for fat free milk, one serving is listed as 90 calories. If you drank 1/2 cup of milk, how many calories would it contain?
    1. 30 calories
    2. 45 calories
    3. 75 calories
    4. 90 calories
  6. 1/2 cup of cooked cereal, pasta or vegetables is about the size of:
    1. a softball
    2. a golf ball
    3. a soup bowl
    4. an ice cream scoop
  7. Which of these does not estimate 3 ounces of cooked meat or chicken?
    1. a deck of cards
    2. the palm of a woman's hand
    3. the palm and fingers of a man's hand
    4. 1/2-inch stack of credit cards

Answers: 1.c; 2.b (1/2 cup pasta equals one serving); 3.c (1 cup of raw leafy vegetables equals one serving, 1/2 cup of other vegetables equals one serving each); 4. a; 5. b (One cup of milk equals 1 serving); 6. d; 7. c.

Proceed to Step 10 of Shape Up & Drop 10™

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