Portion Control

American waistlines are growing due to inactivity and increased food consumption at home and at restaurants. Part of the problem is "portion distortion" — we don't know what a standard serving size is.

According to a study published in the February 2003 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, portion sizes of many popular restaurant and packaged foods have grown substantially over the past 20 years. Some restaurant and fast-food portions exceed standard USDA sizes by as much as eight times. (Remember that muffin you ate this morning that was the size of your head?)


So what's wrong with more food — it's a better value for the consumer, right? It could be, if we knew what a portion size was and took the rest home in a doggie bag. Unfortunately, studies show that we eat more when more food is offered to us.

Here are some tips for recognizing "normal" serving sizes and avoiding the draw of larger portions. Keep this in mind: Most Americans eat too much protein and refined carbohydrates while not getting enough vegetables or fruit. So, if you're going to "super-size" anything, make sure it's a salad, but keep the dressing on the side.

  • A serving of meat, poultry or fish is 3 ounces — about the size of a deck of cards or the palm of your hand.
  • A serving of beans is 1/2 cup and makes a great substitute for 1 ounce of meat. Two tablespoons of peanut butter — about the size of a golf ball — counts as a serving and is equivalent to an ounce of meat.
  • One serving (1 1/2 ounces) of cheese is about the size of three dominoes. A serving of milk or yogurt is 1 cup (or one small container of yogurt).
  • One serving of leafy-green veggies like spinach, kale or collard greens is 1 cup, about the size of a baseball. Half a cup (half a baseball) counts as a serving for cooked veggies like green beans, carrots and Brussels sprouts. That equals about eight green beans, 10 carrot slices or three Brussels sprouts, so it's quite easy to get more than one serving at a time. A small (6-ounce) glass of tomato or other vegetable juice counts as a vegetable serving, too.
  • A 1/2-cup of chopped fruit equals one serving and looks like half a baseball. Whole fruits only need to be about the size of a tennis ball, and a small (6-ounce) glass of juice counts as a serving, too.
  • Carbohydrates often pack on serious calories in one shot. The USDA serving size for a bagel is only about the size of a hockey puck, or 1 ounce. Most bakery and supermarket bagels are the equivalent of about three to four servings. A slice of bread equals a serving. One-half cup of cooked cereal, pasta or rice equals one serving, and is about the size of a cupcake wrapper or a scoop of ice cream. The same goes for an ounce of dried cereal. So, you can see how quickly the six to 11 servings of grains that the Food Guide Pyramid recommends can add up.
  • One final tip — be sure to read the Nutrition Facts Label. Many snacks are sold in what looks like a single-serving bag or container, but they actually provide two servings or more.


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Frances Largeman, R.D., earned her undergraduate degree from Cornell University and completed her dietetic internship at Columbia University in New York. Frances has appeared on local and national TV and has been quoted in Cooking Light magazine, as well as food and health sections of local newspapers across the country.