Serve Yourself Right: Understanding Portion Sizes
If you are looking to lose weight, you need to pay attention not just to what you eat but how much you eat—but this may be harder than you might think.
Portion sizes have bloated over the last 40 years, with Americans today consuming on average 300 more calories per day than Americans did in 1985. As life has gotten busier and pre-packaged and fast foods have become cheaper and more accessible, portion sizes have grown alongside our collective weight.
Why Portion Size Matters
Your portion size should support your calorie goals and take into consideration your age, gender, physical activity levels, and more. You should feel empowered to choose the amount of food you eat, and not feel pressured by the concept of a “value size” or someone pushing additional food on you when you’re not hungry.
Eating two servings means two times as many calories, three servings three times, and so on. It adds up. Luckily, your portion size is in your control!
Portion Sizes vs Serving Sizes
That’s why it’s important to understand the difference between portion sizes and serving sizes. While a portion size is how much of something you eat or drink at a given time, serving sizes come directly from a food company. They can be found on a packaged food’s nutrition label and come in different types of measurements, such as tablespoons, slices, or pieces.
(For non-packaged foods like fruits and vegetables, there are online resources and food-tracking apps that can help you estimate serving sizes.)
Serving size is not necessarily a rule of how much you should eat. Nutrition labels and the serving sizes listed on them are standardized ways food companies share specific nutrition information with consumers. But each person is different. Even among people actively trying to lose weight, personal portion sizes will vary.
People may think filling an entire plate counts as a serving. But in reality, a serving size can be much smaller than you’d think. For context, the American Heart Association shares these examples of common foods and their serving sizes:
- Bread: 1 slice
- Cooked rice or pasta: ½ cup
- Fruit: 1 small piece
- Milk or yogurt: 1 cup
- Cheese: 2 oz. (about the size of a domino)
- Meat, poultry, or fish: 2-3 oz. (about the size of a deck of cards)
Most packaged foods contain more than one serving size, so make sure you check the label.
5 Tips for Reducing Portion Sizes
As we mentioned earlier, your portion size is in your hands. Below are some tips that can help you keep your portion sizes aligned with your weight loss goals:
- A food diary can help you keep track of the foods you eat. Relying on memory alone could lead you to eat more of a certain food. Record when, what, how much, where, and why you eat to help you track habits in your eating that you can then work to change to support your weight loss goals.
- Use the serving size as a start. Take the food out and put it on a plate or in a bowl rather than eating directly from the package.
- Try single-serving packaged snacks or—better yet–fruit to keep you from overeating.
- Don’t feel pressured into eating too much food when you’re out. You’re never required to clear your plate and can always take leftovers home.
- Don’t eat while distracted, such as when watching TV or scrolling on your phone.
Mindful eating is at the center of portion control. Ultimately, learning to recognize, understand, and respect your hunger cues will be the best way you’ll learn your own ideal portion sizes. Be sure not to deprive yourself, and always eat enough food each day to feel energized and to support your healthy living goals.