How to Estimate Portions and Serving Sizes
A serving or a portion; what goes on your plate? Like most people, you probably use the terms interchangeably but if you do, you're comparing apples to oranges.
The USDA defines serving sizes for all kinds of foods and assigns approximate calorie values to those servings. Your age, gender and activity level determine the recommended number of servings from each food group you should have each day. The USDA might advise you, for example, to eat 6 grain servings a day, or two fruit servings.
But what the USDA considers a serving might be considerably less than what you typically eat. For example, a grain serving, as defined by the USDA, is a 'one ounce equivalent' – that's a bagel the size of a yo-yo.
So what's a portion, then? A portion is the amount we actually eat and we tend to think more in 'units', like a whole English muffin, or a large apple. But an English muffin is two grain servings according to the USDA, and a large apple could easily be two fruit servings. Start your day with a huge coffeehouse bagel, which is your portion, and is also much larger than a yo-yo, and you could be eating as many as four 'official' grain servings. That's important to know, so you can more accurately keep track of your calories.
The portions that we eat dwarf the servings designated by the USDA, by a lot. Our meat portions are nearly three times larger than the official serving; we average about five official servings of pasta as a portion, and our cookie portions are a staggering seven times the standard.
That is why label-reading is such an important skill. The serving sizes that you see on the nutrition facts panel are similar to the USDA servings - but often less than what you might portion out for yourself. While it may be logical to assume that a large packaged muffin is one serving, the nutrition facts panel will likely tell you that it's two. So if you eat the whole thing, you'll be eating double the calories, and everything else, that you see listed on the package.
So here are some easy ways to help you better estimate your portions:
- An official serving of meat, fish or poultry is 3 ounces – about the size of a deck of playing cards, a bar of soap, or a checkbook.
- A light bulb or a scoop of ice cream corresponds to a half-cup – the official serving size of starchy foods like rice, pasta or oatmeal.
- A baseball or a rolled up pair of thick socks represents a cup of food – the official serving size of veggies and fruits.
- An ounce of snack foods, like pretzels or nuts, is about one handful.
- A medium baked potato is about the size of a computer mouse; a quarter-cup of raisins is as big as a large egg, and an ounce of cheese is the size of a matchbox.
- Lastly, fats add up fast, so keep in mind that the official serving of salad dressing is about two tablespoons - or the size of a shot glass, and a teaspoon of butter is no larger than the first joint of your finger.
Susan Bowerman is a paid consultant to Herbalife.