Just How Much Food Is on That Plate? Understanding Portion Control
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Just How Much Food Is on That Plate? Understanding Portion Control

Controlling Portion Sizes

Most people consume far more calories than they realize. The culprit? A warped sense of portion size.

According to a survey conducted by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), many Americans believe that the kind of food they eat is more important in managing their weight than the amount of food they eat.

"People are eating more and wondering why they're getting fatter," says Melanie Polk, MMSc, RD, director of Nutrition Education at the AICR. "One big reason is that their focus is too narrow." Ms. Polk adds that Americans are concentrating too much on cutting fat, or relying on fad diets that restrict carbohydrates, sugar, or some other nutrient. Studies reveal that these strategies fail to address the issue of total calories consumed, as well as overall good nutrition.

Serving Sizes Essential to Good Nutrition

Experts say that understanding the concept of standard serving sizes is essential to good nutrition. Standardized serving sizes help consumers, health professionals, and food manufacturers find a common language for the sake of communication.

Although serving sizes are "standardized," individual portion sizes will vary because people have different caloric requirements. Portion size also depends on a person's specific weight management goals and health needs. For example, pregnant and breastfeeding women may require larger portions of food than do women who are not pregnant or nursing.

Nutritional Needs Vary

Portion sizes and overall dietary requirements depend on several factors, including activity level. For example, an inactive person may only need three-quarters to one cup of cereal in the morning, which is the usual serving size of most varieties. But someone who runs several miles a day or who engages in other forms of aerobic exercise may need two or three standard serving sizes.

To help determine a standard serving size, Ms. Polk recommends measuring out those listed on the "Nutrition Facts" food label.

Ways to Estimate Portion Sizes

What is a portion size? According to the American Dietetic Association, you can use the following "models" to approximate portion sizes:

  • A deck of playing cards = one serving (three ounces) of meat, poultry, or fish (can also use the palm of a woman's hand or a computer mouse)
  • A baseball = one serving (one cup) ready to eat cereal
  • 4 stacked dice = one serving (1 1/2 ounces) of cheese
  • A baseball = one serving (one cup) of fresh fruit
  • When at home:
    • Take time to "eyeball" the serving sizes of your favorite foods (using some of the models listed above).
    • Measure out single servings onto your plates and bowls, and remember what they look like. Figure out how many servings should make up your personal portion, depending on whether you need to lose, gain, or maintain weight.
    • Avoid serving food "family style." Serve up plates with appropriate portions in the kitchen, and do not go back for seconds.
    • Never eat out of the bag or carton.
  • When in restaurants:
    • Ask for half or smaller portions. (Do not worry if it does not seem cost-effective; it is worth it.)
    • Eyeball your appropriate portion, set the rest aside, and ask for a doggie bag right away.
    • If you order dessert, share it, or choose a healthier option like fruit.

Seek Dietary Guidance

If you are unsure about your personal nutrition requirements, go to ChooseMyPlate.gov to get eating recommendations based on factors like your age, sex, and activity level. For an even more individualized plan and for motivation, seek the advice of a registered dietitian (RD). These professionals can create individual menus and food plans that are suited to your specific weight management and overall health goals.


Healthier US.gov



Canada's Food Guide

Dietitians of Canada


American Institute for Cancer Research website. Available at: http://www.aicr.org/.

American Dietetic Association website. Available at: http://www.eatright.org/.

Last reviewed February 2011 by Brian Randall, MD

Last updated Updated: 6/27/2011

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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