You are here:
Home | Health | Article 40

How Much is a Serving?
Provided by the American Dietetic Association: Your Link to Nutrition & Health

How much is a "serving"? Is it the same as a "portion"? Are restaurant meals getting bigger, especially compared to meals you make at home? How are people supposed to know how much to eat, anyway?

"In an era of super-sized meals, many consumers are confused, not only about things like the difference between a serving and a portion, but also about the amounts of food they believe they should eat, both at home and while dining out," said Miami registered dietitian and American Dietetic Association spokesperson Sheah Rarback.

According to the results of ADA's latest nationwide public opinion survey, Nutrition and You: Trends 2002, Americans tend to overestimate the recommended serving sizes for many foods. For example, fewer than half of the respondents accurately estimated the recommended serving sizes of cooked pasta, lean meat or vegetables.

"With so many new scientific studies coming out all the time, and with often-conflicting nutrition advice coming at people from all directions, people need help in estimating serving sizes and tailoring portions -- at home and in restaurants -- that are best for them. Also, many restaurants and other foodservice providers have increased portion sizes to improve the perceived 'price-value ratio,' " Rarback said. "This in turn may influence consumers' perceptions of what a portion or serving are.

"Dietetics professionals are a great resource for help in choosing the amounts of food that are right for them and their individual lifestyles," Rarback said.

While the terms "serving" and "portion" often are used interchangeably, Rarback said they actually mean different things. "A serving is the amount recommended in consumer education materials such as the Food Guide Pyramid, while a portion is the amount of food you choose to eat at any one time -- and that may be more or less than a serving," she said. "Clearing up the distinction may help people in planning meals of appropriate size for themselves and their families."

After being provided with the definition of a serving, respondents to ADA's survey were asked to estimate recommended serving sizes of several different types of food. Among the findings:

  • Sixty-eight (68) percent overestimated the serving size of cooked vegetables (a half-cup), while 30 percent got it right.
  • Fifty-five (55) percent overestimated the serving size of cooked pasta or rice (a half-cup), while 45 percent estimated it correctly.
  • Fifty-four (54) percent overestimated the serving size of cooked lean meat, poultry or fish (between two and three ounces). Thirty (30) percent estimated it correctly.
  • Forty-seven (47) percent correctly estimated the serving size of raw leafy vegetables (one cup). Thirty-four (34) percent overestimated it.

A majority of consumers correctly estimated a serving size in just one category: 68 percent knew that a serving of bread is one slice.

In the only category in which a majority of respondents underestimated a serving size, 81 percent said a serving of natural or unprocessed cheese was smaller than it actually is (1.5 ounces). Few consumers underestimated serving sizes for any other food.
  • Nineteen percent underestimated the size of a serving of raw leafy vegetables.
  • Fourteen percent underestimated cooked lean meat, poultry or fish.
  • Five percent underestimated a serving size of bread.
  • No one underestimated serving sizes for cooked pasta or rice, or cooked or chopped raw vegetables.

"It isn't always easy to remember or measure how many ounces constitute an appropriate-sized portion or serving of food," Rarback said. "That's especially true if you're dining away from home. Keeping in mind some everyday visual comparisons can be a big help." ADA offers this advice for quickly estimating serving and portion sizes:

  • Cheese: a 1.5-ounce serving is the size of four stacked dice
  • Fruit, cooked rice or pasta and cooked vegetables: one half-cup is the size of a tennis ball cut in half
  • Cooked lean meat, poultry or fish: two to three ounces is the size of an audiocassette or personal digital assistant.
  • Raw leafy vegetables: one cup is the size of a tennis ball

ADA's survey also asked consumers to compare the sizes of restaurant or ready-to-eat meals bought at a supermarket to meals they prepare at home.
  • Forty-four percent said they think restaurant portions are larger than they make at home
  • Thirty percent said they are smaller.
  • Twenty-five percent said the portions are the same size.

Respondents were asked what they do if they are served more in a restaurant than they want to eat.
  • Sixty-five percent said they eat what they want and take the rest home.
  • Twenty-seven percent eat what they want and leave the rest on their plate.
  • Seven percent said they try to eat the entire meal anyway.

Of those respondents, the survey found, most are men. Overall, 14 percent of men said they try to eat the entire meal, compared with three percent of women.

For more information on serving sizes and portions visit the ADA. With nearly 70,000 members, ADA is the nation's largest organization of food and nutrition professionals. The Chicago-based ADA serves the public by promoting optimal health and nutrition.


Health Reference

Search Health Directory

Past Articles

Health & Nutrition Tips

Health Links