The Portion Control Code

Today's huge portions can lead you to take in far more calories than you realize. Here's an easy way to judge what a healthy serving looks like – and why we all need to do it.


Cracking the Portion Control Code

Whether you're trying to lose weight or just keep from gaining it, portion control can prove to be a powerful ally in today's "super-sized" world. Most portion sizes in restaurants and at home have increased a lot. To make matters worse, people seem more confused than ever when it comes to knowing how much food they should eat. No question: this deadly combination has added to the steady rise in obesity in the United States over the past few decades.

Value-Sized Portions Can Be Very Costly

In general, people don't seem to have a problem with today's larger-than-life portions because on some level they think they are getting a good value. But the price of such overabundance can be high. It's easy to understand that people who overeat will become overweight. But it's important to know that they also risk developing serious medical problems such as type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, breathing and sleeping disorders, bone and joint problems, and even depression. People who overeat are also at greater risk for heart disease, heart failure, and stroke later in life.

Typical Portion Sizes Have Doubled

Portion control is one of the keys to losing weight and keeping it off long-term. However, many people don't know how to estimate the right portion sizes. In fact, most people don't even realize they're eating too much because we've become so used to muffins the size of flower pots and pasta bowls so deep you could swim in them. This phenomenon is lovingly referred to as "portion distortion." Here are two examples:

  • Twenty years ago, an average bagel was three inches in diameter and 140 calories. Today's average bagel is twice that size and packs a whopping 350 calories.
  • In 1990, an average restaurant serving of spaghetti and meatballs was a respectable 500 calories. Today, that number has doubled to 1,000 calories or more per plate.

Keep in mind that when calories double, so does everything else - including sodium and artery-clogging fat.

Know the Difference Between a Serving and a Portion

Another concern is that many people don't understand the difference between a serving and a portion. A serving is a measured amount of food or drink, like three ounces of meat or half a cup of juice. A portion, on the other hand, is the amount of food that you choose to eat for a meal or snack. Many foods that come as a single portion actually contain more than one serving. The Nutrition Facts Label on packaged foods (on the backs of cans, sides of boxes, etc.) tells you the number of servings in the container. Look at the label of a 20-ounce soda, which most people drink as one portion, and you will see that it actually has two-and-a-half servings in it. So many people are taking in two to three times more calories than they realize.

What does a serving look like?

Your best bet for judging serving sizes is to learn what a recommended serving looks like. That way, you can "eyeball" your meals and have an idea of how many servings each meal provides. You can use real life portions to help you lose weight and keep it off.

Standard Serving Sizes

Food Serving Looks Like
Veggies 1 cup salad greens 1 baseball
½ cup cooked or canned ½ baseball
Fruit 1 medium piece 1 baseball
½ cup fresh fruit, cut up ½ baseball
¼ cup dried fruit Large egg
Grains ½ cup cooked pasta or rice ½ baseball
1 medium baked potato Computer mouse
1 average bagel Hockey puck
1 slice of bread Cassette tape
Meat and Poultry 3 oz. cooked Deck of cards
Fish 3 oz. cooked Checkbook
Fats 1 tsp butter or margarine Tip of your thumb
2 Tbsp peanut butter or salad dressing Ping pong ball
Dairy 1 oz. cheese 4 dice or 2 dominos
6 to 8 oz. yogurt Standard yogurt container

To find out how many servings from each group you should be having each day, make an appointment with a registered dietitian. Or, you can find general guidelines at

Let's be realistic. Overdoing it on one day isn't a big deal, but eating super-sized portions over and over, even of healthy foods, will hurt your weight loss efforts and can lead to weight gain. Use these guidelines at home and when eating out to keep your portion sizes - and your waistline - in check.

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