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What Is a Portion Size?

Your guide to keeping portion distortion in check

By: Maureen Bligh, MA, RDN

  • Tuesday, February 11, 2020
  • 3 Minute Read   

With restaurants offering enormous plates of food, extra-large drink cups and snacks sold in king-size packages, knowing how much to eat can be hard. It's difficult to avoid eating more at home, too. Dinner plate, muffin tin and pizza pan sizes have grown. Cars even have larger cup holders to accommodate bigger drink sizes. 

As everything gets bigger, it becomes the norm, distorting how people think about a serving size or the “right” amount. One study found that modern portion sizes of popular foods added an extra 50 to 150 calories. While that might not sound like much, an extra 100 calories per day can add up over the course of a year. 

Some meals appearing “average” in size can equal a whole day’s calories. A large order of french fries can contain as many as 1,000 calories. Adding a hamburger and an extra-large soft drink totals more than 2,000 calories in one sitting. And this isn't unusual. A study published in 2012 found that 96% of restaurant meals exceed U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommendations for fat, salt and overall calories.

Food or beverage1980s (calories)2000s (calories)
Turkey sandwich 320820
French fries210610
Slice of pizza500850
Soft drink85250

Serving Sizes: Then and Now

Source: NYC Health

Managing Portion Sizes

With a little forethought and planning, it is possible to keep portion sizes under control. Below are some tips on how to estimate proper portion sizes and keep portions in check even when faced with big plates of food: 

  • Use a guide to determine what portion sizes should be. Make sense of portion sizes by using hand symbols for portions.
  • Learn to read food labels. Pay attention to the number of servings contained in the package, then note the calorie and fat content per serving. For example, a standard bagel is 2 ounces and counts as two servings from the grains food group. A marketplace bagel weighs nearly 6 ounces and counts as six servings. 
  • Compare marketplace portions to recommended serving sizes. Compare portion sizes from a favorite restaurant to USDA recommendations. The marketplace portion for a pasta dinner might add up to six or more servings of grains. 
  • Repackage supersize bags. Supersize bags may be more economical, but they can also encourage overeating. Repackage huge bags of chips or pretzels, for example, into smaller containers.
  • Share a meal. Order an appetizer and split one main course with another person when going out for a meal. Share an order of fries with everyone at the table. Order one dessert and some extra forks. Four people can enjoy a few bites of a decadent dessert, and it’s probably just the right amount!  
  • Eat half or less. If not sharing a meal, eat half of what’s served and take the rest home to enjoy as another meal. To pack up half right away, ask for a box when the plate arrives.
  • Use a smaller plate. At home, serve meals on 9- to 10-inch diameter plates. The plate will look full, but less will be eaten.
  • Slow down and skip second helpings. Eat one reasonable serving and don't immediately go back for seconds. Allow time to digest and then serve more food if still hungry. 

Practicing portion control allows for freedom from guilt about eating favorite foods, as all foods, in moderation, can fit into a healthy eating pattern. 

Read our guide on how to keep portion distortion in check.

Wu HW, Sturm R. What’s on the menu? A review of the energy and nutritional content of US chain restaurant menus. Public Health Nutr. 2013;16(1)87-96. 
Young LR, Nestle M. Expanding portion sizes in the US marketplace: implications for nutrition counseling. J Am Diet Assoc. 2003;103(2):231-234. 

Maureen Bligh, MA, RDN

Maureen Bligh, MA, RDN

Maureen is the program director of marketing and communications and a practicing registered dietitian nutritionist with over 35 years of experience.

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