Lisa R. Young, PhD, RDN, CDN, is an internationally recognized nutritionist and portion-control expert. Dr. Young received her doctorate and master’s degrees in Nutrition from NYU, and her bachelor’s degree in Economics and Health Care Administration from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. She is also a registered dietitian.
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Pop quiz time: You purchased a 3-ounce bag of potato chips. Its small size and mouth-watering flavor make it seem perfect for a quick snack. Within five minutes, the bag has been devoured. How many servings of chips did you just consume?
The answer probably isn’t what you think. A serving of potato chips is one ounce, or about 12 chips. That “snack-sized” bag actually contained enough chips for three adults, which means you consumed three times as many calories, grams of saturated fat, and milligrams of salt as you likely intended.
Portions are growing
Today’s portion sizes of ultra-processed foods (such as chips, fast food, sodas, ice cream, and candy) are up to five times larger than they were when first introduced to market. For instance, the original Coca-Cola bottle was 6.5 ounces. Today, it’s available in six different sizes—all marketed as single servings—ranging from 7.5 ounces to 24 ounces. And when Hershey’s came out with its first chocolate bar in 1908, it weighed one-half of an ounce—the same size as today’s fun-size Halloween candy bar.
Consumers are drawn to these foods, which have been engineered using sugar, salt, fat, and other palate-pleasing ingredients to keep us craving more, lighting up the reward centers of the brain, similar to how illegal drugs work.
Older adults may like them the most: In a new American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study, researchers analyzed data from nearly 41,000 U.S. adults and found that those ages 60 and older showed the sharpest rise in ultra-processed food consumption—more so than college students.
Big portions contain more calories than small portions, plus we tend to eat more food when given larger sizes. (I call this “eating with our eyes” instead of “eating with our stomachs.”) This is a major reason why 74 percent of U.S. adults are overweight or have obesity, placing them at higher risk for other diet-related conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
Portions versus servings
One of the problems lies in the fact that our notion of a proper serving has been distorted beyond recognition by super-sized fries and 1,000-calorie smoothies. When a restaurant server brings us an enormous plate of pasta, we consider it to be an individual serving when, in fact, what we’ve been given is a portion. They’re not the same thing.
A recent International Food Information Council survey found that nearly half of Americans cannot correctly distinguish serving size—a standard unit of measure upon which nutrition labels are based, such as 1 cup or 2 tablespoons—from portion size, which is the amount of food you are served or choose to eat. Your favorite cereal may list a serving as three-quarters of a cup, but if you pour yourself two cups for breakfast, your portion is actually more than double the serving size.
Very generally speaking, most people should aim for the following serving quantities and sizes:
Grains: Eat four to six servings per day. One serving is one-half cup of cooked rice, pasta, or oatmeal; one slice of bread; or one cup of ready-to-eat cereal flakes. Hint: One cup looks like the amount of space taken up by a closed fist.
Protein: Aim for two to three servings per day. One serving is 3 ounces of cooked fish, poultry, or lean meat; two eggs or four egg whites; one cup of cooked beans; one-half ounce of unsalted nuts or seeds; or one cup of tofu. Hint: Three ounces looks like the amount of space taken by an open palm (not including the fingers or thumb).
Dairy: Eat or drink two to three servings per day. One serving is one cup of low-fat or fat-free milk or yogurt; or one-third cup of shredded cheese. Hint: A cup is 8 ounces, not a full drinking glass, some of which can hold 16 ounces or more.
Fruits and vegetables: With fruits and vegetables, there’s really no reason to worry about serving sizes or portions. They’re packed with nutrients as well as fiber, which helps keep you fuller longer. The more produce you eat, the less room you’ll have for junk food. Note: This doesn’t include fruit juice or dried or canned fruit, all of which are somewhat processed, high in sugar, calorie-dense, and easy to overeat.
As for those tasty, addictive ultra-processed sweets and treats, there’s still room for them at the table, but be choosy and rein in the portions.
Portion hack #1: Buy big bags, and then portion them out at home.
It’s human nature to eat more out of a large bag than a single-serving one. But single-serving packages of food, whether it’s ultra-processed (like chips or candy) or healthy (almonds or baby carrots) cost more, so people tend to go for the bulk sizes.
That’s fine, just portion the snacks out once you get home, keeping serving sizes in mind. Check the nutrition label and make sure it lists a single serving size. Most candies and chips will specify how many pieces per serving (for example, 12 peanut M&Ms or 17 pretzel twists.) If you’re still hungry, supplement your snack with a fruit or veggie.
Portion hack #2: Scoop cereal
It can be all too easy to pour out several cups of cereal for breakfast, especially if you’re in a rush and aren’t being mindful. What you assume is one cup is usually closer to three. In a Consumer Reports test, people were asked to pour out the amount of cereal they’d typically eat for breakfast. Ninety-two percent of participants poured themselves more than the recommended serving size.
Some cereals, like granola and muesli, are quite dense and high in calories. They can easily contain close to 300 calories for a two-thirds-cup serving. Two cups of your favorite granola could easily have more calories and sugar than a chocolate-covered ice-cream bar. Keep measuring cups and scoops handy and aim for one cup of cereal flakes or two-thirds of a cup of chunkier cereal.
Portion hack #3: Use small bowls
In that same Consumer Reports test, people were given bowls in three different sizes: 12, 18, and 28 ounces. When using a 12-ounce bowl, study participants tended to pour themselves 24 to 92 percent more cereal than would be in a single serving. When using an 18-ounce bowl, it was 43 to 114 percent more.
Larger dishes make portions seem smaller. Select smaller bowls and dishes and whatever you’re eating will appear to be more plentiful, which helps make you feel more satisfied.
You can also use this to your advantage to load up on vegetables and salad. In a 2019 study at Australia’s Deakin University, people were given either a small or a large bag of baby carrots. Those presented with the bigger bag ate more carrots. Large portions of veggies will encourage you to eat more: the best-case portion distortion scenario.