Understanding Food Portions

Several generations ago, it might not have been as critical for us to follow a rule such as splitting an entrée when dining out. Portion distortion is a relatively new phenomenon in the food industry, and it is critical for your health that you understand the implications of the changes in portion size over time.

When McDonald’s first opened in 1955, it offered one drink size: 6.5 ounces. Today, the kids’ size is 12 ounces, and the large is 32 ounces! As you may know, choosing soda as a beverage is not an optimal choice; but what if you do decide to have a soda once in a while? What are the implications of having one of today’s large sodas as compared to 1955’s 6.5-ounce serving?

The difference is an extra 245 calories and 17.5 teaspoons of sugar! To burn the extra calories in a single large soda would take nearly an hour of biking.

Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, didn’t think all the soda drinkers out there would burn the additional calories with physical activity. Concerned about the growing costs of diabetes and other nutrition-related diseases, the proposed limits on the sale of sugary drinks in an effort to keep servings to 16 ounces or less. Unfortunately, his proposal was overturned.

What about bagels? In the past 40 years, bagels have nearly doubled in size. The three-inch diameter bagels that I remember as a kid had about 140 calories, much fewer than the 350 calories in the six-inch bagels you often find at stores today.

The calorie difference between the bagel of the 1970s and a bagel of today is about 210 calories, and most of that comes from pro- cessed grains that will turn from sugar to fat in your body unless you burn it off first. In other words, you’d better be running those two miles to the bagel shop—assuming you want to stay as svelte as the ’70s disco stars.


A critical first step is to understand the difference between a serving size and a portion size. A serving size is a specified amount shown on the Nutrition Facts label on a package. The information there, including the number of calories, applies to the serving size.

A portion is how much you actually eat or drink in one sitting; it is also the amount of food you get in a single restaurant order. Guess what? On average, one portion size is equal to two or three serving sizes. Food packaging is tricky, and most people don’t do the math to realize how many calories they are actually consuming. Shoppers might see 250 calories per serving on the Nutrition Facts label but end up eating the entire box or bag in one sitting. They forget to multiply the number of calories by the number of servings. If there are two servings in the package, they’ve just eaten 500 calories, not 250. When reading a Nutrition Facts label, before you read any of the other information, always start by looking at the number of servings.

Once you know the difference between the amount of food in a serving and the amount in a portion, you can use strategies to control the size of your portions. We’ve already discussed sharing an entrée at a restaurant. If you don’t have anyone to share with, simply ask your waiter to save half of your entrée in a to-go bag and have it for lunch the following day. At home, use a 9-inch plate instead of a 12-inch plate. The visual cue of a full plate, even one that’s smaller, can lead to satisfaction. Don’t eat directly from the box or bag. Pour a serving onto a plate and put the container away. Finally, use a comparison to everyday objects to get a sense of what a reasonable portion size is. I have never weighed my food, nor do I count grams or calories on a daily basis. I control my portions by understanding what is a reasonable amount of food to add to my plate. 

Here are the guidelines I follow:

  • Carbohydrates. Amount: 1⁄2 cup cooked, about the size of half a baseball.
  • Protein. Amount: 3 ounces, about the size of a deck of cards.
  • Dairy. Amount: 1 ounce, about the size of four dice. Nut butter. Amount: 1 tablespoon, about the size of half a ping-pong ball.
  • Oils and dressings. Amount: 2 tablespoons, about the size of one ping-pong ball.
  • Vegetables. Amount: Unlimited, pile them up without worrying about quantities!
  • Size food as a ball or card deck, to keep portion sizes in check

Ballooning portion sizes are a big reason behind our nation’s diabetes epidemic. I was amazed to hear the story of Denise Pancryz, now a diabetes reversal expert, who went from having to give herself several shots of insulin every day to being completely drug-free thanks to changes in her eating habits.

If you’d like to listen to her story yourself, please visit this link for the episode.

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