What’s the Right Serving Size?

Have you ever been asked to write down everything you eat over a two- to three-day period? I ask my patients to do this on a regular basis, so I can examine their food diary. Nutritional research studies use food diaries or food frequency questionnaires to evaluate people’s food intake.

The reason why health coaches like myself ask people to record what they’re eating is because most people underestimate the total amounts of food they eat due to the fact that they have a poor understanding of a standard serving size. A typical example is when you eat dinner at a fast food place or restaurant. If you go to a major fast food chain, you can find nutritional information on each item according to the serving size, but if you go to an à la carte restaurant or a buffet-style establishment, that can be a challenge.

There’s a big discrepancy between the food recommendations that federal agencies and governments recommend and the amount that you actually end up eating. For example, the portion size recommended for a meat dish is four ounces, but the average serving size of a meat dish in the average restaurant is at least twice this amount. The same can be said for the use of condiments, salad dressings, pasta dishes, dessert items, and beverages. The situation does not improve much at home, either, where food is consumed in greater amounts because there is general lack of portion control and awareness.

I find that people also do not understand the nutritional information of foods based upon their respective portion sizes at the supermarket. Consumer research has clearly shown that individuals look at the total caloric content of foods based upon the container contents and not the serving size, which can be much different. Other studies have indicated that consumers can make better decisions regarding their food purchases if the food is packaged and labeled with clear guidelines on the amount of serving sizes in one package.

In my opinion, most consumers are unaware of just how much food they eat because of several reasons:

• A lot of people eat foods that are prepared outside of the home, where portion sizes and nutrient quality cannot be controlled.

• Although nutritional information, including portion size, is available for most of these foods, most consumers are not aware of it or don’t really care.

• Most consumers see larger serving sizes as a means of getting more nutritional value for your money.

How many times have you ordered a food item and the serving size appears to be small? You haven’t even tasted it yet, and you have already formed a judgment about the food quality and the establishment based upon the serving size, which may actually be quite appropriate! This “supersize” mentality has shifted our realization of what a normal serving size ought to be, and it has conditioned the consumer to react accordingly.

What you need to do

It’s time that realistic serving sizes be evaluated and incorporated into your dietary choices. If you want more food, eat more vegetables, fiber, and whole fruits. Try to get a food scale and weight a four- to six-ounce serving of meat or chicken breast. Depending upon your weight, gender, and level of activity, this is the serving you should eat with each meal. Cut down on the amount of condiments, dressings, and sauces you typically use, and watch out for beverage consumption. A six- to eight-ounce serving is adequate.

You don’t need to worry about feeling hungry, either; if you eat the correct serving size throughout the day, your body will feel full instead of stuffed.

Vanderlee, L., et al., “Consumer understanding of calorie amounts and serving size: implications for nutritional labeling,” Can J Public Health. July 18, 2012; 103(5): e327-31.
Lando, A.M., et al., “Single-larger-portion-size and dual-column nutrition labeling may help consumers make more healthful food choices,” J Acad Nutr Diet. February 2013; 113(2): 241-50.
Brindal, E., “Perceptions of portion size and energy content: implications for strategies to affect behaviour change,” Public Health Nutr. February 2012; 15(2): 246-53.