That’s a Portion? Taking a Closer Look at Your Plate

New American Plate

It’s National Nutrition Month, a fine time to take stock of what we’re eating and how much. As portions have grown over the years, it’s now common to eat far more than the recommended serving. Taking a hard look at how much you’re eating will go a long way towards healthy eating, and cancer prevention, given that overweight and obesity are strongly linked to increasing the risk of cancer.

Portion Matters

Only mere decades ago, a typical bagel was 3 inches wide and had about 140 calories. Today, double that. From baked goods to restaurant meals, today’s portions are often double the recommended serving size. A 2003 study found that the portions of common foods on the market were two to eight times larger than standard serving sizes.

The Nutrition Facts Label on food packages were intended to help, providing consumers with nutrition and calorie information for a standardized serving. Serving sizes on food labels were based on surveys of the average amount of food consumed at one time, and were meant to serve as a way to compare products.

Buy a liter of soda and the calories given can match a serving size of 8 ounces, according to the Nutrition Label; purchase the commonly-sold 12-ounce can and the calories link to the full can, which is stated as a serving size. Soda also comes in 8-ounce bottles, which are also listed as a serving size on the Nutrition Facts Label.

Yet as portions have increased overall, the Nutrition Facts Label may inadvertently lead to people underestimating their calorie count.

Start munching from a bag of potato chips and unless you stop at 6 chips for some brands, the serving size on the label, it’s easy to rack up triple the calories. A can of soup may be 1.5 or 2 serving sizes, even though many will eat the entire can. The calories listed for your morning cereal generally covers three-quarters of a cup a portion far less than most people actually eat.

What’s a Healthy Eater to Do?

Nutrition Facts Label Serving Size:
Based on surveys, this is the amount of food usually eaten at one time; established in 1993 in order to help people compare products.

USDA Serving Size:
a standard amount, according to USDA data, used to assist people in meeting dietary recommendations.

Portion Size:
how much food you actually eat

The FDA has begun re-evaluating front-of-package labels. Currently, almost all packaged food products are required to post Nutrition Information, which is usually placed on the side or back of the product. One idea the FDA is researching is having the nutrition information placed on the front of the package where consumers would see it more easily. Another possibility is to increase the serving sizes.

Until that happens, or even if it does, there are simple strategies you can use to help you gain more control of your portion sizes.

Tips for Healthy Portion Control

  • Eat from smaller dishes, such as luncheon or salad plates.
  • Estimate portions with some visual cues (see chart).
  • Try measuring your food out for a few days to see the amount you are really eating.
  • Look carefully at the serving size on the Nutrition Facts Label to see how many calories and nutrients you are really eating.
  • Follow AICR’s New American Plate, which emphasizes portion and proportion with a wide variety of foods that can promote health

USDA's standard serving sizes help you assess the portions you eat.

Standard Serving Sizes

Chopped Vegetables
1⁄2 cup
1⁄2 baseball
Raw Leafy Vegetables (such as lettuce)
1 cup
1 baseball or fist for average adult
Fresh Fruit
1 medium piece
1 baseball
1⁄2 cup chopped
1⁄2 baseball
Dried Fruit
1/4 cup
1 golf ball
Pasta, Rice, Cooked Cereal
1⁄2 cup
1⁄2 baseball
Ready-to-Eat Cereal
1 oz. varies from 1⁄4 cup to 1? cups
Red Meat, Poultry, Seafood
3 oz. (boneless cooked weight from 4 oz. raw)
Deck of cards
Dried Beans
1⁄2 cup cooked
1⁄2 baseball
1⁄3 cup
Level handful for average adult
1? oz.
4 dice or 2 9volt batteries

Visit AICR’s The Nutrition Facts Label to find out what each line on the Nutrition Label means.


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