1/2 cup of cooked pasta.
3/4 cup of ice cream.
3 Oreo cookies.
1/2 cup broccoli.
Serving sizes are ingrained into a lot of us, and for some of us, they continue to be the ‘rules’ we follow when we eat.
But is serving size actually the amount we should be eating? Who created this metric, and why? How are serving sizes for different foods determined?
And most importantly, how can serving sizes impact our eating, food choices, and relationship with food?
I’ve got all the answers!
First off, let’s talk about serving size versus portion size.
The terms ‘serving size’ and ‘portion size’ are often used interchangeably, but they aren’t the same.
Serving size is the amount of that food that a Nutrition Facts label tells us is ‘recommended.’ It’s determined by the FDA and USDA according to the amount of that food that is ‘typically’ consumed.
I’m not sure who actually consumes 13 potato chips, but here we are.
Serving size isn’t a rule, and it wasn’t developed with any specific science behind it.
The US nutrition facts label was updated in 2016 to reflect the larger serving sizes that have evolved over the years (before then, the information used in creating serving sizes was from the 1970s and 1980s).
Portion size is the amount of food you actually eat.
So according to the Nutrition Facts label, a bag of almonds might contain 4 servings of 23 almonds each. But your portion size might end up being 27 almonds, which is more than a serving. Or, 11 almonds, which is less.
And that’s okay!
Do I want you to eat an entire bag of almonds? No.
But I also don’t think you need to micromanage what you eat by following serving size like a hawk and measuring out your food.
If you’ve read my book, you’ll notice that I don’t get all prescriptive with portion sizes. I give guidelines, but overall, I leave you all the freedom you want to eat what you want to eat, in portions that work for you.
Some days, you’ll want more. Some days, you’ll want less.
While I believe in understanding the relative nutrition facts of food – this protein food is good for satiety, this greens mix is filling and nutritious, and that pasta is satisfying and gives me energy – I don’t really believe in serving sizes having the last word in how much of a food we eat.
We’re going to talk about why, but first, the positives.
Serving sizes aren’t all bad. They can be valuable, when used with the Nutrition Facts label, in determining if we’re getting enough of a certain nutrient, like calcium, protein, or vitamin D, for example. But if you eat a varied diet, you shouldn’t have to count servings.
Some people might believe that serving sizes on multiple-serving packages that look single serve, such as bottles of Coke and snack-sized bags of Doritos, can be helpful.
If a serving of Doritos is actually 1/3 of the bag, that’s good information to have if you’re counting calories.
But I look at serving sizes on food packages the same way I look at the calorie values: they’re a number that doesn’t generally serve us in our everyday life.
For one, it’s easy to take them out of context.
Ultra-processed foods should appear in your diet as little as possible. Does knowing that that bag of Doritos has three servings, change how much of them a person eats?
It might, but predictably, the research isn’t all that conclusive. Some studies suggest that people eat less of a food when it has a larger serving size, but other studies suggest the opposite (and here). It may have something to do with the type of food they looked at (candy versus ‘core’ foods).
Regardless, serving sizes can influence the way we feel about the health benefits of a food.
Research has consistently found that consumers tend to perceive a food as less healthy when serving sizes are larger.
One of the above studies took the exact same food, manipulated the Nutrition Facts label to double the serving size from 2oz to 4oz. Of course, the calories and everything else on the Label doubled as well.
Seeing the larger 4oz serving size and higher nutrient levels led people to believe that the food was less healthy than when it was labelled with the 2oz numbers.
Same food. Different label.
That study found that “larger serving sizes may impact consumers’ estimate of calories and increase consumption guilt… smaller serving sizes generate less guilt and greater consumption.”
I think it’s safe to say that as far as most of us go, I think we need to get out of our own way when it comes to serving sizes.
Serving sizes can foster a distrust in your body.
If you’ve been on way too many diets, it’s probably second nature to you to measure out exactly 3/4 cup of cereal. You may not be able to stand the thought of free-pouring food that accidentally might be too many calories. The need to keep it all in check, and in control. To know exactly what you’re eating, because if you don’t measure your food, you might want more, and you might eat too much.
The serving size is a hard stop…until it isn’t.
In fact, I think people eat more when they measure things out according to serving size, because serving size is just another ‘rule’ they force themselves to follow.
And as you know, rules around food and eating rarely end well. We always want more food than the serving sizes ‘allow’ us to have.
I can’t think of any food rule that’s actually valid. Most of them are designed by the diet industry to whip us into submission and keep us there. And naturally, we end up rebelling against them, then end up feeling even worse about ourselves.
You don’t have to do that. You’ll be just fine without measuring everything. Actually, you’ll probably be better off.
They can cause a disconnect between your hunger and your food intake.
This can happen in a couple of ways, some of which you might not even realize.
Say you want to eat some crackers.
You note that the serving size is 10 crackers, so you portion out 10 crackers. You really only want 8 crackers, but the serving size says 10, so you feel compelled to eat 10. You weren’t hungry for 10, but you think, ‘I might as well.’
Instead of paying attention to how you’re feeling, your focus in only on the serving size. The result is that you eat more than you otherwise would have.
By the same token, if you’re eating those same crackers and are really hungry and don’t want to stop at 10, eating more can cause guilt and shame for going over the serving size.
Another way serving sizes can cause a disconnect is with our food choices.
This happens not only with serving sizes, but also calories, carbs, and pretty much anything that’s on the nutrition label.
You might see two foods with similar calories, but one has a larger serving size. Even though you might want the other food more, you choose the one that gives you a larger volume of food, because it seems like a ‘good deal.’
Even if you didn’t really want that food, you convince yourself that you made the right choice.
But did you really?
If you’re choosing foods based on a diet mindset of following the numbers, and not which foods you want to eat and how they make you feel, you might end up less satisfied with what you’re eating.
Serving sizes are arbitrary.
Serving sizes have no idea who you are, what you need in terms of nutrition. In fact, they aren’t supposed to be anything more than a recommendation.
Why should the serving size be the same for me and my thirteen year old?
Just like the labels in the study were we talking about at the beginning of this post, serving sizes can be manipulated by recipe developers and food companies to make certain foods appear ‘healthier.’
How many times have you made a ‘healthy’ dish from a recipe, and when it was done, you realized that the reason why the calories and other values were so low, was because the serving size was tiny? That’s part of the reason why I rarely even look at ‘healthy’ eating and cooking magazines.
It’s enough to make your head spin.
Here’s how to manage eating without using serving sizes.
Know what a balanced diet looks like.
This is your starting point.
It’s not individual foods that we should be focusing on, rather, it’s our entire diet.
Instead of letting the serving sizes on food packages dictate how much of something you eat, try to understand what a balanced diet looks like overall.
Lots of plants. High-quality proteins, and a handful of carbs. Choosing what’s physically AND emotionally nourishing to you.
Eat as many whole and minimally processed foods as you can.
Don’t pay attention to people who give you ‘rules.’ Those diet ‘gurus’ who tell you that a snack is 10 almonds or 1/2 cup of grapes?
Tune them out. Who eats 10 almonds? Ugh.
You don’t need any more rules in your life. Unless you have a specific reason – like diabetes, for example – why you need to measure out portions or use serving sizes.
Nothing bad is going to happen to you if you eat 12 almonds, or if you don’t count out every piece of food that you put into your mouth.
You’ll be free. That’s a good thing. Getting there is a process, but it’s well worth it.
Try to minimize distractions while you eat, and use the hunger and fullness scale to help you tune in to how your body feels.
Shift your focus to how foods make you feel, not how many crackers you can eat without feeling guilty. Eat what you love, what makes you feel nourished.
Know that you can use the time you waste obsessing about serving size and counting out your blueberries, for things that make you happy. You deserve that.
My book Good Food, Bad Diet, helps you get away from the diet mindset. Buy it here.