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Food Portions

Food Portions

Have you noticed that the size of muffins, candy bars, and soft drinks has grown over the years? How about portions of restaurant foods like pasta dishes, steaks, and french fries? As portion sizes grow, people tend to eat more-often more than they need to stay healthy.

Larger food portions have more calories. Eating more calories than you need may lead to weight gain. Too much weight gain can put you at risk for weight-related diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. Managing your weight calls for more than just choosing a healthful variety of foods like vegetables, fruits, grains (especially whole grains), beans, and low-fat meat, poultry, and dairy products. It also calls for looking at how much and how often you eat. Understanding food portions is a big part of counting calories while dieting. Learn more about food portions here.

USDA National Nutrient Database

Just Enough for You About Food Portions


What’s the difference between a portion and a serving?

A "portion" is how much food you choose to eat, whether in a restaurant, from a package, or in your own kitchen. A "serving" is a standard amount set by the U.S. Government, or sometimes by others for recipes, cookbooks, or diet plans. There are two commonly used standards for serving sizes:

Illustration of the food guide pyramidThe United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Guide Pyramid is a healthy eating plan for people ages 2 and over. It shows the recommended number of servings to eat from each of five food groups every day to meet your nutrition needs, and it defines serving sizes. (For more information, see The Food Guide Pyramid under Additional Reading.)

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Nutrition Facts Label is printed on most packaged foods. It tells you how many calories and how much fat, carbohydrate, sodium, and other nutrients are in one serving of the food. The serving size is based on the amount of food people say they usually eat in one sitting. This size is often different than the serving sizes in the Food Guide Pyramid.


Sample of a Nutrition Facts labelHow do I know how big my portions are?

The portion size that you are used to eating may be equal to two or three standard servings. Take a look at this Nutrition Facts label for cookies. The serving size is two cookies, but if you eat four cookies, you are eating two servings-and double the calories, fat, and other nutrients in a standard serving.

To see how many servings a package contains, check the "servings per container" listed on the Nutrition Facts label. You may be surprised to find that small containers often have more than one serving inside.

Learning to recognize standard serving sizes can help you judge how much you are eating. When cooking for yourself, use measuring cups and spoons to measure your usual food portions and compare them to standard serving sizes from Nutrition Facts labels for a week or so. Put the measured food on a plate before you start eating. This will help you see what one standard serving of a food looks like compared to how much you normally eat.

Photo of someone writing notes on a piece of paperAnother way to keep track of your portions is to use a food diary. Writing down when, what, how much, where, and why you eat can help you be aware of the amount of food you are eating and the times you tend to eat too much. The chart below shows what 1 day of a person’s food diary might look like.

After reading the food diary, you can see that this person chose sensible portion sizes for breakfast and lunch-she ate to satisfy her hunger. She had a large chocolate bar in the afternoon for emotional reasons-boredom, not in response to hunger. If you tend to eat when you are not hungry, try doing something else, like taking a break to walk around the block or call a friend, instead of eating.

By 8 p.m., this person was very hungry and ate large portions of higher-fat, higher-calorie foods. If she had made an early evening snack of fruit or pretzels, she might have been less hungry at 8 p.m. and eaten less. She also may have eaten more than she needed because she was at a social event, and was not paying attention to how much she was eating. Through your diary, you can become aware of the times and reasons you eat too much, and try to make different choices in the future.




Coffee, black


Low-fat yogurt

6 fl. oz.

1 medium

1 cup

Slightly hungry

Turkey and cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread with mustard, tomato, and lettuce

Potato chips, baked


3 oz. turkey, 1 slice American cheese, 2 slices bread

1 small bag, 1/2 oz.

16 fl. oz.

Chocolate bar King size (40z.)
Not hungry/bored

Fried mozzarella sticks

Chicken Caesar-Salad


Apple pie with vanilla ice cream

Soft drink

4 each

2 cups lettuce, 6 oz. chicken, 6 tbs. dressing, 3/4 cup croutons

2 large

1/8 of 9-inch pie, 1 cup ice cream

12 fl. oz.

Very hungry
/out with friends


How can I control portions at home?

Photo of a chocolate chip cookieYou do not need to measure and count everything you eat for the rest of your life-just long enough to recognize standard serving sizes. Try these other ideas to help you control portions at home:

  • Take a standard serving out of the package and eat it off a plate instead of eating straight out of a large box or bag.

  • Avoid eating in front of the TV or while busy with other activities. Pay attention to what you are eating and fully enjoy the smell and taste of your foods.

  • Eat slowly so your brain can get the message that your stomach is full.

  • Three strawberriesTake seconds of vegetables or salads instead of higher-fat, higher-calorie parts of a meal such as meats or desserts.

  • When cooking in large batches, freeze food that you will not serve right away. This way, you won't be tempted to finish eating the whole batch before the food goes bad. And you'll have ready-made food for another day. Freeze in single-meal-sized containers.

  • Ice cream in a bowlTry to eat three sensible meals at regular times throughout the day. Skipping meals may lead you to eat larger portions of high-calorie, high-fat foods at your next meal or snack. Eat breakfast every day.

  • Keep snacking to a minimum. Eating many snacks throughout the day may lead to weight gain.

  • When you do have a treat like chips, cookies, or ice cream, eat only one serving, eat it slowly, and enjoy it!


Is getting more food for your money always a good value?

Photo of a hamburger, fries, and sodaHave you noticed that it only costs a few cents more to get a larger size of fries or soft drink? Getting a larger portion of food for just a little extra money may seem like a good value, but you end up with more food and calories than you need.

Before you buy your next "value combo," be sure you are making the best choice for your health and your wallet. If you are with someone else, share the large-size meal. If you are eating alone, skip the special deal and just order what you need.



How can I control portions when eating out?

Research shows that the more often a person eats out, the more body fat he or she has. Try to prepare more meals at home. Eat out and get take-out foods less often. When you do eat away from home, try these tips to help you control portions:

  • Share your meal, order a half-portion, or order an appetizer as a main meal. Photo of a waitress carrying three plates of food

  • Take half or more of your meal home. You can even ask for your half-meal to be boxed up before you begin eating so you will not be tempted to eat more than you need.

  • Stop eating when you begin to feel full. Focus on enjoying the setting and your friends or family for the rest of the meal.

  • Avoid large beverages, such as "supersize" soft drinks. They have a large number of calories. Order the small size, choose a calorie-free beverage, or drink water with a slice of lemon.

  • When traveling, bring along nutritious foods that will not spoil such as fresh fruit, small cans of fruit, peanut butter and jelly (spread both thin) sandwiches, whole grain crackers, carrot sticks, air-popped popcorn, and bottled water. If you stop at a fast food restaurant, choose one that serves salads, or order the small burger with lettuce and tomato. Have water or nonfat milk with your meal instead of a soft drink. If you want french fries, order the small size.


Photo of half an orangeThe amount of calories you eat affects your weight and health. In addition to selecting a healthful variety of foods, look at the size of the portions you eat. Choosing nutritious foods and keeping portion sizes sensible may help you reach and stay at a healthy weight.


Additional Reading

U.S. Department of Agriculture Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. The Food Guide Pyramid. Home and Garden Bulletin No. 252. October 1996. Phone 1-888-878-3256.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. How Much Are You Eating? Home and Garden Bulletin No. 267-1. March 2002. Phone 1-888-878-3256.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Guidance on How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Panel on Food Labels. June 2000.


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Weight-control Information Network

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The Weight-control Information Network (WIN) is a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health, which is the Department of Health and Human Services' lead agency responsible for biomedical research on nutrition and obesity. Authorized by Congress (Public Law 103-43), WIN provides the general public, health professionals, the media, and Congress with up-to-date, science-based health information on weight control, obesity, physical activity, and related nutritional issues.

WIN answers inquiries, develops and distributes publications, and works closely with professional and patient organizations and Government agencies to coordinate resources about weight control and related issues.

Publications produced by WIN are reviewed by both NIDDK scientists and outside experts. This publication was also reviewed by Samuel Klein, M.D., Danforth Professor of Medicine and Director, Center for Human Nutrition, Washington University, and Marie-Pierre St-Onge, Ph.D., Post-doctoral Fellow, New York Obesity Research Center, St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital Center.

This e-text is not copyrighted. WIN encourages users of this e-pub to duplicate and distribute as many copies as desired.


National Institutes of Health

NIH Publication No. 03-5287
January 2003

e-text posted: March 2003



Additional Resources:

Study: Americans super-sizing at home, too

Stopping Kids from Overeating

Controlling Portion Sizes

Food Portion Sizes Growing With Our Waistlines