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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 it provides tips to help you eat just enough for you.
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 label, or food label (see Figure 1 below).
Different products have different serving sizes. Sizes can be measured in cups, ounces, grams, pieces, slices, or numbers—such as three crackers. Depending on how much you choose to eat, your portion size may or may not match the serving size.
To see how many servings a container has, look at the top of the label. “Servings per container” is listed right above “Serving size.” In the example below, a frozen lasagna serving size is 1 cup. But the container has four servings. If you want to eat 2 cups—or half the package—you’d be eating two servings.
Do a little math to find out how many calories you would really be getting.
In this case, eating two servings would mean getting twice the calories—and other nutrients—that are listed on the food label.
Figure 1. Nutrition Facts label
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) changed some food and beverage serving sizes so the labels more closely match how much we typically eat and drink. As a result of recent updates to the Nutrition Facts label, some serving sizes on food labels may be larger or smaller than they were before (see Figure 2 below). For instance, a serving size of ice cream used to be 1/2 cup. Now it’s 2/3 cup. A serving size of yogurt used to be 8 ounces. Now it’s 6 ounces.
Remember: The serving size on a label is not a recommendation of how much you should eat or drink.
Figure 2. FDA serving size changes
The serving size on a food label may be more than or less than the amount you should eat. That’s because how many calories you need each day to maintain your weight or lose weight may depend on
For example, if you’re a 150-pound woman whose main physical activity is a short walk once a week, you’ll need fewer calories than a woman about your size who engages in intense physical activity, such as running, several times a week.
To help you figure out how many calories are just enough for you, check out the following resources.
The FDA’s Nutrition Facts food label is printed on most packaged foods. The food label tells you how many calories and how much fat, protein, carbohydrates, and other nutrients 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 using larger print than before, so it is easier to read.
The food label has other useful information about what is in one food serving, such as
Figure 3. Side-by-side comparison of original and new Nutrition Facts labels
One way to become healthier now and in the future is to use the Nutrition Facts label together with the MyPlate Plan that helps you figure out how many calories you need each day. Using the two together, as shown in Figure 4 below, can help you figure out how many vegetables, fruits, grains, protein foods, and dairy products your body needs.
Figure 4. Nutrition Facts label and MyPlate.gov
Checking food labels for calories per serving is one step toward managing your food portions. It’s also important to keep track of
Create a food tracker on your cellphone, calendar, or computer to record the information. Or you can download apps available for mobile devices to help you track how much you eat—and how much physical activity you get—each day. For example, the Start Simple with MyPlate
app tells you how to get started and is free to download and use.
The sample food tracker in Figure 5 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 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 2,916—more than most people need. Taking in too many calories may lead to weight gain over time.
Figure 5. Sample food tracker
|8 a.m.||Coffee, Black||6 fl. oz.||2||Home||Slightly hungry|
|Low-fat yogurt||1 cup||250|
|1 p.m.||Grilled cheese sandwich||281||Work||Hungry|
|Potato chips||Single-serving bag, 1 ounce||152|
|Water||16 fl. oz.||0|
|3 p.m.||Chocolate-chip cookies||5 medium-sized||345||Work||Not hungry/bored|
|8 p.m.||Mini chicken drumsticks with hot pepper sauce||4||312||Restaurant, while out with friends||Very hungry|
|Taco salad||3 cups in fried flour tortilla with beans and cheese||586|
|Chocolate cheesecake||1 piece, 1/12 of 9-inch cake||479|
|Soft drink||12 fl. oz.||136|
|Latte||Espresso coffee with whole milk, 16 ounces||196|
|Total Calories =||2,916|
If you find that you eat even when you’re not hungry, like the person in the food tracker example, try distracting yourself from food by doing something else instead. For instance,
Using your tracker, you may become aware of when and why you consume less healthy foods and drinks. This information may help you make different choices in the future.
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 so long enough to learn typical serving and portion sizes. Try these tips to control portions at home.
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’re away from home.
Have you noticed that it costs only a few cents more to get the large fries or soda 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.
Eating healthier doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. For instance,
The NIDDK conducts and supports clinical trials in many diseases and conditions, including weight management. The trials look to find new ways to prevent, detect, or treat disease and improve quality of life.
Clinical trials—and other types of clinical studies—are part of medical research and involve people like you. When you volunteer to take part in a clinical study, you help doctors and researchers learn more about disease and improve health care for people in the future.
Watch a video of NIDDK Director Dr. Griffin P. Rodgers explaining the importance of participating in clinical trials.
You can find clinical studies on weight management at www.ClinicalTrials.gov. In addition to searching for federally funded studies, you can expand or narrow your search to include clinical studies from industry, universities, and individuals; however, the National Institutes of Health does not review these studies and cannot ensure they are safe. Always talk with your health care provider before you participate in a clinical study.
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 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:
Carla Miller, Ph.D., R.D., Professor, Ohio State University