Serving Size vs Portion Size

We hear the words serving size and portion size all the time, but do we actually know what those terms mean? Most people tend to think that these terms are synonymous, but they actually are not. When it comes to our nutrition, knowing what these two terms actually mean is important. So I’m going to go ahead and break down the definitions of each of these two terms.

Serving Size

This is a term that we hear used over and over when it comes to nutrition, and tends to be a term that is thrown around loosely. Whether we are reading it on a food label, or we are hearing it said while in conversation, we don’t always fully understand what this term means. Serving size is referring to the specific quantity that typically serves as a reference for the nutrient content and value of that food. So this means that the serving size isn’t necessarily the amount of food that we should eat. I think most of us see the serving size, and assume that’s the amount that we should be eating, when in fact most of the time it’s not. When a serving size is placed on an item, basically all it is doing is informing you of the nutrition content within a given amount of that food. Sometimes that serving size could be way less than we actually need, and sometimes that serving size could be a lot more than we need. The amount of food that we need to consume should be based more on our size and macro needs, as opposed to what the serving size on the box says. By just assuming that we are supposed to consume the amount of food that is stated as the serving size on the box, could be putting us on the wrong track for trying to best reach our goals. That’s why it’s important to look at the serving sizes to know the nutrient composition of that food item, and then it’s up to us to then determine how much of that we actually need to consume, based on our goals.


Portion Size

This is another term that we hear a lot, yet once again we don’t always know exactly what is being referred to when this word is used. Portion size is the amount of food that you actually choose to put on your plate and consume. This is a size that can be more or less than what the serving size is, but once again we have to remember that it isn’t necessarily the amount of food that we need to eat. When it comes to portion size, this is something that most people tend to struggle with. Most of us know the types of foods that we need to eat, but where we get in trouble is when it comes to actually portioning out what we are eating. What most of us think of as a “normal” portion size, usually tends to be twice as large and sometimes even three times as large as the amount that we are actually supposed to consume. We refer to this as portion distortion, and it’s something that almost everyone struggles with, whether you know it or not.


Portion Distortion

Portion distortion is when we consider the amount of food that we normally consume to be a normal portion, when in fact it tends to not be anywhere close. This doesn’t just mean that the amount of food that we are putting on our plate is larger than it’s supposed to, it also comes down to the foods that we buy at a store also being made in larger sizes. For example, a bagel nowadays is 6 inches in diameter, whereas 20 years ago they were only 3 inches in diameter. Another example of this is a burger. On average most burgers that we consume are 6-8 ounces, whereas 20 years ago they were only about 4 ½ ounces. One way we can help combat this problem is with using websites such as MyPlate or Harvard Healthy Eating Plate. These websites will help show you what your plates should look like as far as your macronutrients go and can help eliminate consuming too much at each meal. Another quick and easy way to help with this problem is to eat on smaller plates. This will allow you to put less food on your plate, and can therefore help with portion sizes. A final way we can help quickly measure food out is with hand measurements. Below are some examples of what we can use to measure our food.


Protein: open palm = 3 ounces

Carbs: cupped palm = ⅓ cup

Fruit & Veggies: closed fist = 1 cup of veggies and 1 piece of fruit

Solid Fats: whole thumb = 2 tbsp

Oil: finger tip = 1 tsp

Dairy: finger length = 1 ounce of cheese

fist = 1 cup of milk


Now that we know the difference between a serving size and a portion size, we will be able to better understand what is actually being referred to. The main thing moving forward will be understanding exactly what our portion sizes need to be, and then using the serving size to appropriately calculate our macros. Knowing this is one of those small things that are often overlooked, yet can make a huge difference in the results that we get over time.


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