Is There a Difference Between Serving Size and Portion Size? 

How to listen to your body rather than the packaging to avoid overeating and weight gain. 

Take any packaged food product and you should be able to look at the nutrition label to see how many nutrients are provided per serving. However, if you've ever scooped a couple spoonfuls of hummus and a handful of crackers for a snack and then been surprised by the recommended serving size, you'll know that serving size doesn't always correspond to portion size. 

Sound complicated? We are going to break down the differences between serving sizes and portion sizes. 

What exactly is the distinction between a serving size and a portion size? There is obviously some misunderstanding between the two terms. According to a recent survey by the International Food Information Council, nine out of ten Americans claim to understand serving and portion sizes, but almost half of us don’t actually understand the differences between the two. This lack of understanding is making us fatter. 

What exactly is the distinction between a serving size and a portion size?

Many people rely on the written portion size on the packaging to determine how much they should eat rather than their bodies' signals of hunger or fullness. For weight control and to avoid overeating, around half of respondents said they attempt to eat close to the serving size on the box - or, worse, they assume that the serving size is the full box or package, and eat all of it. This is incredibly common with pre-packaged foods and leads to massive over-consumption of calories and rapid weight gain.

We talked to registered dietitians to figure out what the difference is between the two phrases, why it matters, and how to use a serving size to steer you to a portion size that matches your needs rather than the other way around. 

What is the definition of a serving size? 

What is the definition of a serving size?

A serving size is a specific amount of food that is standardised and measured. According to the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics, this is most typically used by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in reference to food groups or displayed on nutrition data labels on packaged foods. Cara Harbstreet, M.S., R.D., LD., and an intuitive eating registered dietitian, adds that you'll see these listed on school lunches, hospital cafeterias, and some restaurant menus. 

Serving size is usually expressed in cups, ounces, grammes, bits, slices, or other comparable units on a packed product. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the package will list the number of servings per container and the manufacturer's recommended serving size will be listed underneath (NIDDK). According to Alissa Rumsey, M.S. R.D., owner of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness and author of Unapologetic Eating, the nutrition label should provide all nutrition facts, such as carbohydrates, protein, calories, and other nutrients, based on the serving size.

The US Food and Drug Administration has recently made changes to packaged goods serving sizes to better represent how Americans eat, such as reducing a half cup of ice cream to two-thirds of a cup per serving. However, keep in mind that the serving size on the label is not a suggestion for how much you should eat. More on this later. 

What is the definition of a portion size? 

Portion size

According to Harbstreet, a portion size is the amount of food you choose to eat, although your personal portion size may be a fraction of (or several) serving sizes, and this might vary from day to day. Depending on your hunger levels, your portion size for food may be half the suggested serving size one day and three times that the next. 

As Americans began to consume larger meals, restaurant portion sizes have increased over time. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, typical meals such as bagels have doubled in size while drinks have quadrupled in size since the 1990s. According to the American Heart Association, adults in the United States consume 300 more calories per day than they did in 1985. (AHA).

You can start to see why getting a handle on your portion sizes is so critical for weight loss. Following a balanced Meal Plan that contains grocery lists, and easy to prep meals recipes that have been broken down into correct portion sizes will ensure that you are eating the right foods, at the right times, in the right amounts to successfully lose body fat and manage weight loss. 

What is the significance of the difference between a portion and a serving? 

What is the significance of the difference between a portion and a serving?

"A serving size is an arbitrary amount determined by someone else; it has nothing to do with your body or what you need to eat." According to Rumsey, a portion is "a quantity of food that you select to eat depending on your bodily cues, preferences, and what you require." 

Let’s make sure we have that down. A serving size is what the food companies think you should eat. A portion size is what you choose to eat based on your nutrition needs, weight management goals and how you manage your hunger. 

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, your specific nutritional needs will vary based on your age, weight, height, metabolism, gender, exercise level, and other factors. 

Even while serving sizes are guided by science (the Food and Drug Administration uses USDA food consumption surveys as a guide), it's important to realise that many manufacturers who print nutrition labels have a hidden agenda when calculating serving sizes. The more that you eat, the more profit it drives for the big packaged food companies. Creating bottomless consumers is great for revenue. 

"Serving sizes often provide the idea that you are eating the proper quantity of food," explains Rachael Hartley, R.D., author of Gentle Nutrition. "An adequate portion to fulfil isn't a fixed amount; it varies depending on your hunger level and what else you're eating with your meal." A serving size of soup with a sandwich for lunch, for example, may be a satisfying amount of soup. A single dish of soup may not be enough if you're only eating it for lunch. According to Hartley, you'll need to adapt your portion size accordingly. If you are following a Meal Plan designed to help you lose weight, the plan will have calculated all of this for you - doing the portion size management, so that you are never mindlessly overeating. 

"Serving sizes become hazardous when people use the serving size on a nutrition label to determine whether or not they should eat the dish," says Tessa Nguyen, R.D., L.D.N., a registered dietitian and professional chef. "This is when meals become split into good and bad based on the numbers on the nutrition facts label rather than considering if it's a food that naturally fits into their eating patterns," says the author.

Getting the right amount of food into your body.

That isn't to argue that all serving sizes should be avoided or that all serving sizes are terrible. They do have a function, according to Harbstreet, especially for persons who need to consider specific nutrients to assist manage a chronic condition, such as diabetics who dose insulin depending on carbohydrate intake or someone who struggles to acquire enough protein in their diet. If you've recently exercised or are an athlete, Rumsey says you should focus on consuming enough carbohydrates to power your muscles. This isn't to indicate that persons in these groups have to eat the recommended serving size, but it can be used as a guide to help them meet their nutritional requirements. 

For the average person who is balancing life, work, family and everything else that goes into a dynamic life, figuring all of these calculations out is daunting and extremely complicated. Trusting food companies that push profits over public health is partially why 80% of the adult population is now overweight or obese. That’s why we created our Meal Plan - to simplify all this into an easy to follow, common sense plan that will take care of your nutritional needs while helping you lose weight. People need help and guidance to take control of their diets. 

Getting the right amount of food for your body. 

Getting the right amount of food for your body.

According to Harbstreet, you may use a hunger-fullness scale to figure out how big your portion size should be to feel full and content with your meal. This metre determines how full you are by checking in with yourself while eating and measuring your appetite and contentment on a one-to-ten scale. 

Check in with yourself halfway through, two-thirds through, and when you've finished the portion size you set for yourself, according to Harbstreet. 

"When it comes to eating, mindfulness and being connected to your body are beneficial qualities to have," Rumsey adds. "Knowing what your body wants and needs and responding by feeding it what it wants and needs helps you have a more joyful and rewarding eating experience." 

If you're having trouble determining whether you're hungry or full, Rumsey recommends arranging your meals to be more regular (every four to five hours) -as determined by the Meal Plan - which will include carbohydrates, protein, and fats to keep you satisfied and feeling full.

Unless you're aiming to meet a specific amount of food or nutrients for a medical reason, Hartley adds, there's usually no need to measure or weigh out items for yourself if you focus on your hunger cues. 

Because many foods aren't labelled, the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics recommends using the following standard tools to estimate the average portion size of specific meals: 

- A baseball or a medium sized fist. For measuring veggies, fruit, or juice, use this to measure about a cup of food. 

- A tennis ball -  this weighs around half a cup or one ounce and is perfect for grains. 

- The palm of your hand or a deck of cards. This weighs around 3-ounces and is ideal for a size of fish, poultry, beef, or other protein. 

- Your thumb. Use this to calculate the amount of nut butter in a tablespoon. 

- A Postage Stamp is around a teaspoon, and it's perfect for measuring oils and fats.

I hope that this article has helped you get a clear understanding of the differences between serving sizes and portion sizes, and how easy it is to get confused and overeat food products. It’s clear that food companies have a profit agenda, and that making serving sizes and portion sizes overly complicated serves to increase the amounts we are eating (and spending). Get on a balanced Meal Plan that puts your health and weight management first. If you like our honest, straight forward vibe here at BodyRock, you can also consider training with us each day. Our Beginner Bootcamp workout program on our fitness streaming service BodyRockPlus.com delivers a daily full-body workout at the beginner level of fitness intensity, seamlessly supporting your diet and fitness goals. We’d love to have you.

Best,

Freddy

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