By: Amanda A. Kostro Miller, RD, LDN

Portion. Serving. Calories per serving. Calorie count. If you’re struggling to navigate through weight loss (and feel like you’re studying for a vocabulary test), then you’re in the right place! We will discuss important keywords that you should know in order to make your weight loss efforts more effective.

More specifically, we’ll talk about serving size and portion size because not knowing the difference can prevent you from losing weight – seriously!


Serving Size versus Portion Size

“Serving size” and “portion size” are 2 ways we can measure the food that we are eating, but make sure you can identify the difference.

What is a serving size? What is a portion size?
A specific, standard measured amount of food. It’s often displayed on a food label and is the amount in which the calories, protein, fat and other nutrients are calculated. The amount of food that you put on your plate. Or, the amount of food served to you at a restaurant or fast food place. Calories and nutrition in a portion size may be more or less than that of a serving size.


Still a little unsure? Let’s look at an example and see how it can affect your calorie intake:

Scenario: You are eating brown rice with your dinner.
Standard serving size of brown rice Your portion size of brown rice
Serving size: ½ cup Portion size: You spoon 2 cups into your bowl (to fill your bowl)
Calories: 180 calories Calories: 720 calories
Protein: 4 grams Protein: 16 grams
Fat: 1.5 grams Fat: 6 grams
Sodium: 0 milligrams Sodium: 0 milligrams
So, after dinner you log your meal and you take a look at the Nutrition Facts label on the back of the rice box. What do you log?

 The Nutrition Facts label says 180 calories, so is that what you log and account for?

No! Make sure you log the portion size that you actually consumed. In this case, you ate 2 cups of rice, which equates to 720 calories. Thinking that you only ate 180 calories from your rice (when in fact you consumed 720 calories) can really throw off your calorie intake. What’s even worse: You may be underestimating your calorie intake for other foods.

If we are inaccurate when calorie counting, we may be eating too many calories, thus preventing weight loss!


New Changes to Food Labeling

In recent years, food labeling has changed drastically. Maybe you have noticed some changes on the Nutrition Facts labels on your food. To bridge the discrepancies between servings size and people’s actual intake (portion size), the nutrition labels have begun to reflect what a “normal” portion size looks like, and they have adjusted the nutrition calculations.

A common place you may see these recent changes would be on 20-oz soda bottle. More traditional bottles may label a 20-oz soda as 2.5 servings, whereas updated 20-oz sodas will label the entire bottle as 1 serving. After all, who only drinks part of a soda bottle for the day?


How to Use Serving Size and Portion Size to Your Advantage

While you may be discouraged that serving sizes of foods tend to seem small, there are a few ways you can use this information to your advantage.


Portion Control Hack #1: Eat the suggested serving size

The suggested serving size may benefit those trying to control their calories because it is a clear-cut portion to use. Also, many serving sizes tend to be smaller than the typical “Americanized” portion, keeping the calories in check.

However, before you drastically cut your calorie intake based on serving size, make sure you are eating the gender-specific daily calorie minimums. For women, make sure you consume at least 1200 calories per day (even if you are trying to lose weight). Likewise, for men, make sure you consume at least 1500 calorie per day. Consuming less than these amounts may actually deter weight loss in most people. For the most accurate calorie recommendations, see a registered dietitian and/or your weight loss health care team.


Portion Control Hack #2: Ignore the suggested serving size in certain foods

If controlling the portion size of all your food is really hard, then give yourself a break! There are several foods that can be consumed in “unlimited” amounts. When we say “unlimited,” that is, you can fill them up on your plate so that you don’t feel deprived. This idea is similar to the Weight Watchers Freestyle program where some foods are considered zero-point foods that you can eat freely. Such “free” foods include:

  • Fresh fruit (i.e. blueberries, strawberries, apple)
  • Fresh vegetables (i.e. asparagus, carrots, broccoli)
  • Plain eggs (i.e. scrambled, hardboiled)
  • Edamame
  • Salsa
  • Salad greens (i.e. lettuce, spinach, kale)
  • Non-sodium spices (i.e. garlic, turmeric, fresh herbs, dried herbs, black pepper)
  • Nonfat Greek yogurt
  • Non-flavored beans
  • Skinless chicken breast (98% fat free)
  • Tuna

Now, it’s important to clarify that the foods listed above are not calorie-free, however, they tend to be low in calories and you can fill them up on your plate to keep you full (preventing you from overeating other foods). Use these foods as “free foods” to fill you up at that meal.


Portion Control Hack #3: Learn how to estimate proper portion size

Sometimes memorizing numbers and measurements is hard, so we put together a list of common food items and how to remember proper portion size using everyday objects. Use this chart the next time you are structuring a meal or snack to keep the portions in check:

Serving Size Example Food Item What it Should Look Like
1 Tablespoon Butter Poker chip
2 Tablespoons Peanut butter Golf ball
1 ounce Cheese (block) 2 dice
1 ounce Lunch meat, cheese slice, pancake, waffle CD
1 slice Bread Cassette tape
3 ounces Beef, poultry, pork Deck of cards
½ cup Cereal, rice Lightbulb
1 cup Yogurt Baseball

For more information about portion control, check out this handy portion size guide. Also, get extra tips on how to eat healthy by reading more from our blog.