To reach or stay at a healthy weight, how much you eat is just as important as what you eat. Do you know how much food is enough for you? Do you understand the difference between a portion and a serving? The information below explains portions and servings, and provides tips to help you eat just enough for you.
What is the difference between a portion and a serving?
A portion is how much food you choose to eat at one time, whether in a restaurant, from a package, or at home. A serving, or serving size, is the amount of food listed on a product's Nutrition Facts, or food label (see Figure 1 below).
Different products have different serving sizes, which could be measured in cups, ounces, grams, pieces, slices, or numbers—such as three crackers. A serving size on a food label may be more or less than the amount you should eat, depending on your age, weight, whether you are male or female, and how active you are. Depending on how much you choose to eat, your portion size may or may not match the serving size.
Figure 1. Updated Nutrition Facts Label
As a result of updates to the Nutrition Facts label in May 2016, some serving sizes on food labels may be larger or smaller than they had been before (see Figure 2 below). For instance, a serving size of ice cream is now 2/3 cup, instead of 1/2 cup. A serving size of yogurt is 6 ounces rather than 8 ounces. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) changed some food and beverage serving sizes so that labels more closely match how much people actually eat and drink.
Figure 2. FDA Serving Size Changes
Serving size and servings per container
Go back to the updated food label in Figure 1 above. To see how many servings a container has, you would check “servings per container” listed at the top of the label above “Serving size.” The serving size is 2/3 cup, but the container has eight servings. If you eat two servings, or 1 1/3 cups, you need to double the number of calories and nutrients listed on the food label to know how much you are really getting. For example, if you eat two servings of this product, you are taking in 460 calories:
230 calories per serving x two servings eaten = 460 calories
How much should I eat?
How many calories you need each day to lose weight or maintain your weight depends on your age, weight, metabolism, whether you are male or female, how active you are, and other factors. For example, a 150-pound woman who burns a lot of calories through intense physical activity, such as fast running, several times a week will need more calories than a woman about the same size who only goes for a short walk once a week.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 can give you an idea of how many calories you may need each day based on your age, sex, and physical activity level. Use the Body Weight Planner tool to make your own calorie and physical activity plans to help you reach and maintain your goal weight.
How can the Nutrition Facts food label help me?
The FDA food label is printed on most packaged foods. The food label is a quick way to find the amount of calories and nutrients in a certain amount of food. For example, reading food labels tells you how many calories and how much fat, protein, sodium, and other ingredients are in one food serving. Many packaged foods contain more than a single serving. The updated food label lists the number of calories in one serving size in larger print than before so it is easier to see.
Other Helpful Facts on the Food Label
The food label has other useful information about what is included in one food serving. For example, one serving on the food label in Figure 1 above has 1 gram of saturated fat and 0 grams of trans fat, a type of fat that is unhealthy for your heart.
The updated food label also includes information about “added sugars.” Added sugars include table sugar, or sucrose, including beet and cane sugars; corn syrup; honey; malt syrup; and other sweeteners, such as fructose or glucose, that have been added to food and beverages. Fruit and milk contain naturally-occurring sugars and are not included in the label as added sugars. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 calls for consuming less than 10 percent of calories daily from added sugars.
Because Americans do not always get enough vitamin D and potassium, the updated food label includes serving information for both of these nutrients. Since a lack of vitamin A and vitamin C in the general population is rare, these nutrients are no longer included on the food label. However, food makers may include them if they choose. Most food makers will have to start using the new food label by July 26, 2018. Figure 3 below compares the updated food label with the original label.
Figure 3. Side-by-Side Comparison of Original and New Nutrition Facts Label
How can I keep track of how much I eat?
In addition to checking food labels for calories per serving, keeping track of what you eat—as well as when, where, why, and how much you eat—may help you manage your food portions. Create a food tracker on your cellphone, calendar, or computer to record the information. You also could download apps that are available for mobile devices to help you track how much you eat—and how much physical activity you get—each day.
The Sample Food Tracker in Figure 4 below shows what a 1-day page of a food tracker might look like. In the example, the person chose fairly healthy portions for breakfast and lunch, and ate to satisfy hunger. The person also ate five cookies in the afternoon out of boredom rather than hunger.
By 8 p.m., the person was very hungry and ate large portions of high-fat, high-calorie food at a social event. An early evening snack of a piece of fruit and 4 ounces of fat-free or low-fat yogurt might have prevented overeating less healthy food later. The number of calories for the day totaled 2,914, which is more than most people need. Taking in too many calories may lead to weight gain over time.
If, like the person in the food tracker example, you eat even when you’re not hungry, try doing something else instead. For instance, call or visit a friend. Or, if you are at work, take a break and walk around the block, if work and schedule permit. If you can’t distract yourself from food, try a healthy option, such as a piece of fruit or stick of low-fat string cheese.
Figure 4. Sample Food Tracker
||6 fl. oz.
||Grilled cheese sandwich
||Single-serving bag, 1 ounce
||16 fl. oz.
||Mini chicken drumsticks with hot pepper sauce
||Restaurant/Out with friends
||3 cups in fried flour tortilla with beans and cheese
||1 piece, 1/12 of 9-inch cake
||12 fl. oz.
||Espresso coffee with whole milk, 16 ounces
Total Calories =
*Estimates are based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food-A-Pedia online tool that measures diet and physical activity.
Through your tracker, you may become aware of when and why you consume less healthy foods and drinks. The tracker may help you make different choices in the future.
How can I manage food portions at home?
You don’t need to measure and count everything you eat or drink for the rest of your life. You may only want to do this long enough to learn typical serving and portion sizes. Try these ideas to help manage portions at home:
- Take one serving according to the food label and eat it off a plate instead of straight out of the box or bag.
- Avoid eating in front of the TV, while driving or walking, or while you are busy with other activities.
- Focus on what you are eating, chew your food well, and fully enjoy the smell and taste of your food.
- Eat slowly so your brain can get the message that your stomach is full, which may take at least 15 minutes.
- Use smaller dishes, bowls, and glasses so that you eat and drink less.
- Eat fewer high-fat, high-calorie foods, such as desserts, chips, sauces, and prepackaged snacks.
- Freeze food you won’t serve or eat right away, if you make too much. That way, you won’t be tempted to finish the whole batch. If you freeze leftovers in single- or family-sized servings, you’ll have ready-made meals for another day.
- Eat meals at regular times. Leaving hours between meals or skipping meals altogether may cause you to overeat later in the day.
- Buy snacks, such as fruit or single-serving, prepackaged foods, that are lower in calories. If you buy bigger bags or boxes of snacks, divide the items into single-serve packages right away so you aren't tempted to overeat.
How can I manage portions when eating out?
Although it may be easier to manage your portions when you cook and eat at home, most people eat out from time to time—and some people eat out often. Try these tips to keep your food portions in check when you are away from home:
- Share a meal with a friend, or take half of it home.
- Avoid all-you-can-eat buffets.
- Order one or two healthy appetizers or side dishes instead of a whole meal. Options include steamed or grilled—instead of fried—seafood or chicken, a salad with dressing on the side, or roasted vegetables.
- Ask to have the bread basket or chips removed from the table.
- If you have a choice, pick the small-sized—rather than large-sized—drink, salad, or frozen yogurt.
- Stop eating and drinking when you’re full. Put down your fork and glass, and focus on enjoying the setting and your company for the rest of the meal.
Is getting more food for your money always a good value?
Have you noticed that it costs only a few cents more to get the large fries or soft drinks instead of the regular or small size? Although getting the super-sized meal for a little extra money may seem like a good deal, you end up with more calories than you need for your body to stay healthy. Before you buy your next “value meal combo,” be sure you are making the best choice for your wallet and your health.
How can I manage portions and eat well when money is tight?
Eating healthier doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. For instance:
- Buy fresh fruit and vegetables when they are in season. Check out a local farmers market for fresh, local produce if there is one in your community. Be sure to compare prices, as produce at some farmers markets cost more than the grocery store. Buy only as much as you will use to avoid having to throw away spoiled food.
- Match portion sizes to serving sizes. To get the most from the money you spend on packaged foods, try eating no more than the serving sizes listed on food labels. Eating no more than a serving size may also help you better manage your fat, sugar, salt, and calories.
Too many calories can affect your weight and health. Along with choosing a healthy variety of foods and reducing the total calories you take in through eating and drinking, pay attention to the size of your portions. Sticking with healthy foods and drinks and managing your portions may help you eat just enough for you.
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This content is provided as a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the National Institutes of Health. The NIDDK translates and disseminates research findings through its clearinghouses and education programs to increase knowledge and understanding about health and disease among patients, health professionals, and the public. Content produced by the NIDDK is carefully reviewed by NIDDK scientists and other experts.
The NIDDK would like to thank:
Dr. Carla Miller, Associate Professor, Ohio State University
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