Portion vs. Serving Size

It's time to learn the difference between the two and apply it to our eating.


By Ramona Fortanbary


Portion sizes are definitely not the same as serving sizes, but Americans are eating more portions than servings. But what is the difference between a portion and a serving? A portion is the totality of what is served to you in a restaurant, the total size of prepackaged foods or what a person places on his or her plate to consume in a single sitting. A serving is a unit of measure used to describe the amount of food recommended from each food group to meet your daily dietary needs to maintain a healthy weight.

Part of the problem with knowing the difference between a portion and a serving size is that as a society, we like to eat out, and the restaurant industry is very accommodating with portions. According to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, between 1977 and 1991, the number of restaurants in the United States increased by 75%. But American restaurants are dishing out portions that are far larger in most cases than what is healthy for you, even exceeding serving sizes as outlined in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), restaurant meals of all kinds have gotten larger with an emphasis on getting more food for your money. This poses a dilemma for our waistlines because research shows that people simply eat more when presented with a larger portion. That goes for snack foods too, which are being portioned in ever larger sizes.

For example, 20 years ago, a typical bagel was three inches in diameter and had 140 calories. Today a typical bagel is six inches in diameter and has 350 calories. Likewise, a soda 20 years ago was 6.5 ounces and contained 82 calories while today’s soda is 20 ounces and contains 250 calories.

An American Problem?

In comparison to the French, researchers found that only 7% of French people are obese, while 30% of Americans are obese. At least part of the difference was in portion size. Researchers found that portion sizes at most restaurants in Paris are 25% smaller than the same meal in Philadelphia. Similarly, Chinese restaurants in Philadelphia served meals that were a whopping 72% larger than what a Chinese restaurant in Paris serves its patrons. The research also indicates that how long you spend eating might also have an effect on your waistline. On average, Parisians spent 22 minutes dining in a McDonald’s compared to the 14 minutes Philadelphians spent on their burgers, fries and soft drinks.

Eat servings, not portions

Familiarize yourself with serving sizes and work toward making your servings fit the recommended serving sizes. Check the Nutrition Facts panel on packaged foods or the amount of food recommended in the Food Guide Pyramid and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Always check the nutrition labels on food you are purchasing.

Start by checking servings per container. Look at the percentage of daily value for every ingredient. If a food has 20 percent calcium that means that one serving of that item will give you your daily recommended amount of calcium. Try to limit foods with saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol and sodium. And try to consume foods with more calcium, potassium, vitamins A and C and iron listed on the label.

According to the CDC, although the ability to accurately determine appropriate amounts of food to eat is important, there is little research to suggest which methods would be most successful in helping people estimate appropriate serving size. And serving sizes are far smaller than most people think. For example, two tablespoons of cream cheese is about the size of a golf ball, three ounces of meat can be measured by comparing it to the size of your palm, and one cup of vegetables, salad or a baked potato should be no larger than a baseball.

Portion control key part of health

The CDC says the key to maintaining a healthy weight isn’t about dieting, it’s about a healthy lifestyle that includes healthy eating, regular physical activity, and balancing the number of calories you consume with the number of calories your body uses. To ensure you only consume a serving size you need, not an entire portion, the CDC recommends:

  • Splitting your entrée with a friend or asking your server for a doggie bag so you can put half of your meal into the bag before you consume the food.
  • Minimizing second and third servings by putting the whole meal on a plate and not on the table.
  • Putting your snacks into a bowl or other container, instead of eating from the bag or box.

Research shows that people actually get full by the total amount of food they eat, not the number of calories they consume. So fill yourself on low-fat popcorn or a heap of vegetables. And don’t beat yourself up while you learn.

Because of the importance of portion size, it would be helpful to understand more clearly certain aspects of its impact on weight and weight management. Clearly, more research is needed to make it easier for people to understand portion vs. serving size.

For more information and printable resources on portion and serving sizes, check out the following:

Portion Distortion Quiz

Go Light When You Grab a Bite

Time To Scale Back

The New (Ab)Normal

Screen Time vs. Lean Time

Ramona Fortanbary is a Northern Virginia-based freelance writer and editor. Ramona has served as a writer in many industries. She has been a newspaper editor, corporate communications manager and public affairs specialist and senior writer-editor for the U.S. government. Ramona has studied at Chapman and Harvard universities. Her interests include fitness, reading, traveling and volunteer work. Ramona currently serves on the board of Heart Marks Art Therapy, a 501(c)(3) organization offering free art therapy sessions to at risk segments of our society.

Main Photo Credit: pakornkrit/; Second Photo Credit: Kzenon/; Third Photo Credit: Charles Knowles/; Fourth Photo Credit: Elena Elisseeva/

Mar 10, 2016

Umm good