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The Truth about Serving Sizes and Portions

The terms “serving size” and “portion” are often thrown around as if they are one in the same, even though they have very different meanings. A serving size is a recommended amount of food someone should eat, as seen on MyPlate and nutrition facts labels. A portion is the chosen amount of food eaten in one sitting. Since these terms are a little confusing, we’re going to go through some in-depth examples below!

Portions: Then and Now

Comparison of Portions and Calories 20 Years Ago to Present Day

20 Years Ago Today
Portion Calories Portion Calories
Bagel 3" diameter 140 6" diameter 350
Cheeseburger 1 333 1 590
Spaghetti w/meatballs 1 cup sauce
3 small meatballs
500 2 cups sauce
3 large meatballs
Soda 6.5 ounces 82 20 ounces 250
Blueberry Muffin 1.5 ounces 210 5 ounces 500

Source: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

As seen in the chart comparing portion sizes today with those 20 years ago, the amount of food being served is continuously increasing. The CDC conducted studies to determine if people consumed more than their normal amount of food in one sitting when there was more food on their plate. This assumption turned out to be true! Even if we aren’t hungry, we tend to consume more food when presented with larger portions. Here’s a quick way to figuring out correct portion sizes on the go!

One Serving Looks Like:

  • Steak and chicken = deck of cards
  • Pancake = DVD
  • Brown rice = baseball
  • Pasta = ice cream scoop
  • Cheese = pair of dice
  • Beans = light bulb
  • Butter = postage stamp
  • Fish = check book
  • Dark chocolate = dental floss container
  • Peanut butter = golf ball
  • Potato = computer mouse
  • Slice of bread = cassette tape

Quick Guide to Serving Sizes

Serving sizes can also be pretty misleading, especially since they are typically listed on the back of products on the nutrition facts label where many people don’t look. Even though portions have increased in society, serving sizes have not. Now-a-days, one bagel is typically 3-4 servings and one sandwich is at least 2 servings! Here’s a quick and easy guide to spotting serving sizes when you don’t have access to the nutrition facts label.

Estimating Serving Sizes

Hand Symbol Equivalent Foods
Fist 1 cup Pasta, rice, fruit, vegetables
Palm 3 oz Meat, fish, poultry
Handful 1 oz Nuts, raisins
2 Handfuls 1 oz Chips, popcorn, pretzels
Thumb 1 oz Peanut butter, hard cheese
Tip of thumb 1 tsp Oil, mayo, butter, sugar

Information from, CDC, and National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

Remember these helpful tips and you’ll be able to overcome serving size and portion distortions with ease from wherever you are!

Live Healthy, Choose Wisely

Your University Housing Nutrition Team
Residence Hall Dining

Emily Feagans
Dietetics Graduate Assistant

Cecily Haase
Undergraduate Nutrition Intern