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The ultimate guide to serving sizes

Krissy Brady is a women’s health + lifestyle writer who’s so out of shape, it’s like she has the innards of an 80-year-old. Instead of learning how to crochet, she decided to turn her emotional baggage into a writing career (genius, no?)...

Easy tricks for perfect portions

If you have no idea what the difference is between a serving size and portion size… well, me neither. Then there’s this "portion distortion" thing that has everyone in a dither, not to mention how easy it is to eat too much, thanks to dinner plates now being the size of trays. No wonder we just look at a muffin and gain 5 pounds. Sigh.
Family eating dinne
Photo credit: Fuse/Getty Images

The only way we’re going to get a grip on our ridiculous eating habits is by going back to the basics. Here’s the 411 on servings, portions and calories (oh, my!).

Serving size vs. portion size

While these two phrases are used interchangeably, they don’t mean the same thing:

A serving size is the recommended amount of food as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A portion size is the amount of food you put on your plate that you plan to eat in one sitting — which is usually way more than one serving.

What’s wrong with this picture?

The short answer: Portions are effing confusing! The long answer: While recommended servings are more or less the same, there are a ton of factors getting in the way of what we consider a portion — hence "portion distortion," which essentially means ginormous portions of food look normal to us. We eat whatever’s on our plate and pick it clean without considering the number of servings we’re shoveling in our mouths.

For example:

  • A chicken caesar salad 20 years ago was 1.5 cups and 390 calories; today, it's 3 cups and almost 800 calories!
  • Soft drinks were 6.5 ounces (192 ml) and 85 calories; today, they’re 20 ounces (591 ml) and 250 calories.
  • A coffee and muffin 20 years ago was 2.5 ounces (71 grams) and 210 calories; today, they’re 4 ounces (113 grams) and up to 500 calories.

Doesn’t that make you want to order one of each?

Get to know serving recommendations

It helps to learn the USDA's serving recommendations by heart to make sure you're a) receiving the necessary daily nutrients and b) maintaining healthy portion sizes.

  • Fruit: 2 cups for women 19-30; 1.5 cups for women 31+.
  • Veggies: 2.5 cups for women 19-50; 2 cups for women 51+.
  • Grains: 6 ounce equivalents for women 19-50; 5 ounce equivalents for women 51+.
  • Protein: 5.5 ounce equivalents for women 19-30; 5 ounce equivalents for women 31+.
  • Dairy: 3 cups for women 19+.

Keep your portions in check by...

  1. Not eating food directly from the container. You can better judge the portion size you’re eating by putting it on a plate first.
  2. Eating your dinner on a salad plate. It will trick your brain into thinking you have more to eat.
  3. Eating slowly and chewing thoroughly. Try to eat your meals sans distractions so you’re aware of your body telling you you’re full.
  4. Portioning off your snacks. When it comes to snacks you have a major weakness for, organize portions into snack-sized plastic bags.
  5. Staying hydrated. Hunger is often confused with thirst.
  6. Sleeping well. Tired equals irritable, which equals stress eating.
  7. Treating yourself. Don’t deprive yourself completely — have one small treat per day (or week) for a job well done.

Give yourself a hand

No matter where you are or the size of the plate that’s plunked in front of you, you can quickly measure a proper portion size with your hands:

  • The palm of your hand: 1 serving of chicken, meat or fish/seafood
  • A closed fist: One serving of salad
  • A cupped hand: One serving of veggies, pasta or rice
  • A thumb tip: 1 teaspoon of oil, butter or margarine
  • An entire thumb: 1 tablespoon of salad dressing

Tools that come in handy

If you suck at portion control (you know, like me), then make sure you have the following on hand in your kitchen:

  • Measuring spoons
  • Measuring cups
  • Food scale

Your portion sizes are likely way bigger than they’re supposed to be. Between your large, fancy plates at home and the gigantic portions you receive at restaurants, the extra effort is well worth it to make sure you’re not mindlessly overindulging.

Improve your eating habits

How cheating on your diet can help weight loss
The truth about your eating habits
Workplace diet strategies to lose weight and tone up

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