Healthy Servings: A Visual Guide to Portion Sizes

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Do you realize how much you’re putting on your plate? You may think you have a handle on your portions, but it turns out people tend to underestimate how much they eat by as much as 25 percent. If you’re aiming for 2000 calories per day, that means you might be off by 500 calories, which could be the difference between losing or gaining a pound a week!

Most healthy eaters realize keeping an eye on portion sizes is an easy way, at a glance, to stay on track with weight goals. Still, it can be tricky. Part of the confusion is between serving size and portion size. They sound like the same thing, but generally there’s a big difference.

A serving size is a measured amount of food—1 cup, 1 slice, 1 teaspoon, etc. It’s the amount you’ll see on a food label, and it’s what the USDA uses in the Healthy Eating Guidelines and daily recommendations. Food label serving sizes are determined by the manufacturer, so they might not match the dietary guidelines. It’s a good idea to stick to what the guidelines say. 

A portion size is the amount of food or drink you consume in one sitting. It could be a large amount or a small amount; exactly one serving size, like a slice of bread, or several times that, like a bottle of fruit smoothie that says it contains two servings. (Who doesn’t guzzle the entire bottle in one go?)

Portion sizes have grown significantly over the years, placing value-for-money ahead of nutrition, and distorting the perception of how much one should actually be eating. Pop into your local movie theater and order a small soda and popcorn (delivering a total of 600 calories!), and it’s all too clear. But from breakfast to dinner, healthy foods to treats, portion distortion can be overcome. Here are six common measuring mistakes, with some fun and easy references to keep them in check.

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Granola: 1 serving = ¼ cup (1 oz/30 g), about the size of an egg | 140 calories
What to avoid: 1 full bowl (5 oz/155 g) | 700 calories
A 2000 calorie diet includes 6 servings of grains per day.
These can be spread throughout the day, so 2 servings at breakfast would be fine.

 

Cereal and Granola

If you’re using your cereal bowl as a guide, chances are you’re pouring too much. Even if you choose a healthy, high-fiber cereal, the calories and carbohydrates can quickly add up. Pick a sugary version, and you’ll start the day with an overload. Stick to about 1 cup (1 oz/30 g) of flaky cereal or ¼ cup (1 oz/30 g) of granola.

 

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Mixed nuts: 1 serving = small handful (1 oz/30 g), about the size of a golf ball | 160 calories
What to avoid: large overflowing handful (3 oz/90 g) | 480 calories
A 2000 calorie diet can include 1 serving of nuts five days a week.

 

Nuts and Nut Butters

Nuts are full of goodness (healthy fats, protein, fiber), but they also deliver a large dose of fat and calories. Snack away, just stick to a small, closed handful once a day. The same goes for nut butters, which are an excellent afternoon pick-me-up—spread two tablespoons across your toast, not four.

 

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Colby cheese: 1 serving = 1½ oz (45 g), about the size of two 9V batteries | 165 calories
What to avoid: 4 thick slices (3 oz/90 g) | 330 calories
A 2000 calorie diet includes 3 servings of fat-free or low-fat dairy per day.

 

Cheese

Cheese is a perfect example of a healthy food that’s easy to overdo. Rich in calcium and protein, but high in saturated fat and sodium, it requires some restraint. Shredding or crumbling a small amount of a strong-flavored cheese, like sharp cheddar or feta, makes a little go a long way.

 

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Cooked pasta: 1 serving = ½ cup (1 oz/30 g), about the size of a tennis ball | 120 calories
What to avoid: 4 cups (8 oz/250 g) | 960 calories
A 2000 calorie diet includes 6 servings of grains per day.
These can be spread throughout the day, so 2 servings at dinner would be fine.

 

Pasta and Rice

When it comes to grains, it’s easy to cover your entire dish and make them the star of the meal. Try to fill only one quarter of the plate with grains, and cast pasta or rice in a supporting role, as a side dish or scattered throughout a salad.

 

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Mixed greens: 1 serving = 2 cups (2 oz/60 g) leafy greens, about the size of 2 baseballs | 15 calories What to avoid: ½ cup (½ oz/15 g) | 4 calories
A 2000 calorie diet includes 2½ servings of vegetables per day.

 

Vegetables

Don’t be shy when digging into that salad! Most eaters don’t hit the daily recommendation for vegetables, so this is one instance where your portion can increase. Load up half your plate with greens, reds, and oranges.

 

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Orange juice: 1 serving = 1 cup (8 fl oz/250 ml), about the size of a baseball | 110 calories
What to avoid: 1 large glass (16 fl oz/500 ml) | 220 calories
A 2000 calorie diet includes 2 servings of fruit per day.

 

Fruit juice

There’s no doubt it’s a better bet to eat your fruit rather than drink it, to get the most fiber and least sugar. But if you do slurp the freshly-squeezed kind every now and then, consider how many pieces of fruit you’re juicing in order to fill that glass—stick to one or two pieces.

 

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Vanilla ice cream: 1 serving = 2 small scoops (2½ oz/75 g), about the size of 2 golf balls | 155 calories
What to avoid: 4 large scoops | 390 calories
A 2000 calorie diet allows up to 270 calories per day from treat foods.

 

Ice Cream

What fun would life be without a little indulgence? But don’t be tempted to eat straight out of the tub, rather dish up a small scoop or two into a bowl. Throw on some fresh fruit or grated dark chocolate and use a small spoon to slowly, and mindfully, savor each delicious mouthful.

 

Challenge yourself: Get set up with balls, batteries, and measuring cups and see how your daily portion sizes stack up.

How do you keep an eye on portion sizes? Join the conversation below.

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65 CommentsLeave a comment

    • Steps are not really enough unless you do mainly hills at a good pace. Even then there is a lot of your body not getting exercised. An exercise class or DVD at home work but you need to keep at it. 5-6days a week. Try finding the time and place that suits you and stick to it.
      re food, the poster in my kitchen says “Eat Food. Not too much. Mainly Plants” Being the right weight for your height is really important. 2 pieces of fruit a day max and no grapes!! those little suckers are straight sugar!!
      All the best for the task ahead. If I can do it, so can you. Annette

    • I have been diagnosed pre diabetic too. My Dr basically said nothing white. No bread, rice, sugar, pasta, or potatoes. I do not eat any prepackaged foods. So what can you eat? Eggs for breakfast. A million ways to make to mix it up. Salads for lunch, whole wheat wrap sandwiches.

      • Try frying an egg white in a skillet sprayed with a little olive oil. Then toast a whole wheat English muffin (I buy the 100 calorie ones) and add a couple spinach leaves, a thin slice of avocado and maybe a slice of tomato. You can also add a small slice of low fat cheese like Swiss or provolone. It makes a great breakfast sandwich. Avoid butter or mayo. If you need to spread something, try a plain mustard or low fat hummus.

  • Thanks for brining reality into proportion. Portion control is definitely my problem. I’ve gotten on the “popcorn kick,” thinking I could eat more because it’s less calories. I’m just going up hill in weight after initially losing 18 lbs.
    Once I get a taste of something I love, whether healthy or bad food, I go on a roll–it’s the same as an a person addicted to alcohol (good thing I don’t drink)–going full speed down hill. It takes so much energy and determination to turn it around. I go into self-destruction mode once I start on popcorn, ice cream, or candy.

    • I have that problem too, and I know others who do. I can’t say I’ve shaken it, like any habit/addiction issue it takes concentrated energy and this sneaks up on you when you’re tired or stressed. One thing is to let a few trusted friends know and ask them to check in on you. Another is to remember that it’s a feeling you have, not a necessity. Post notes on the fridge. Make a plan early in the day to not overeat, but to do something fun. Forgive yourself for today and start new tomorrow. Part way through a binge when you realize what you’re doing stop! Half as much is half as much and congratulate yourself for that. Put the time into it, don’t let family sidetrack you. Find something else to do when you’re stressed, like walk, or talk it out. It’s hard work, but practice like an athlete. Celebrate the successes and let the failures go. Over time you can build up your self control muscles. Other people have done it, you can too.

    • Ms. Nana, that is me!! I was doing well on weight watchers losing 45lbs over 8months, and I got the taste for sugar, and popcorn and regained 20lbs back! I had to regroup. Tracy’s article is really helping me to refocus and go back down the hill.

    • Sweets are my downfall too. I cut out all cakes, pies, cookies, candy, etc. at the beginning of the year and dropped almost 20 lbs in two months. Now I’m having to be careful not to fill my snacking desires with junk like pretzels and pumpkin seeds. Sugar free jello and Italian ice are good treats that make you feel like you’re having a little dessert.

    • I have recently started portioning my treats by putting them into a separate container; I never take the whole bag. This allows me to feel I have enjoyed the treat and gives me the will power to avoid eating the whole bag. I find that I slow down and pay more attention to what I am eating. I enjoy the textures and flavours so much more. ~All the best!

    • I had to chuckle at your post. I am a recovering alcoholic and i remember going to a weight watchers meeting not too long after I started going to AA. My partner and I sat in the back and I would whisper, “Hi. My names is Holly and I am an ice cream o’holic. Addiction is addiction. We ask for help, do our best, and help another friend. Peace to you all.

  • Take a reminder when you get off track. Portion size is good to visually see.

    • I bought containers that are for portion control. Each one measures the right amount of protein, carbs, dairy, meat, fats, veggies, is very helpful. Our Dr told my husband and I, when we go out to dinner and order , we ask waiter for a to go box when she brings our food. We put 1/2 our food into the go box , then we eat 1/2 and bring home the other 1/2 for another day . It works very well for us .

  • Another good way to control portion size is down size your plates! We’ve done this and have been surprised how much difference in portion size eating off a plate only 1 inch smaller in diameter can make. Makes it look like you’re eating way more than you are and yet you still end up feeling full. After all it takes 20 mins for the full feeling to kick in. And that horrible ‘stuffed’ feeling becomes a thing of the past, even at Christmas! 🙂

    • We’ve down sized our plates as well. I find it very helpful to keep portions more in line with servings. We now typically eat from a luncheon plate instead of dinner. For me it’s fine. For my hubby he goes for seconds.

      But this is all well and good but you have to increase activity too. I’m older and it is very hard to take off weight. I get discouraged easily. I’ve heard it takes 21 days to create a habit. Which is a long time. But, with my Fitbit I am involved in several weekly and weekend challenges with my friends and that keeps me motivated not to be a slug.

      Also counting and recording my foods is eye opening. I do wish Fitbit had a place to enter recipes. I integrate that from another fitness app though.

      • I have also started eating off of a smaller plate. I actually think it may be a salad plate. I am a visual person so when I fill up the smaller plate I am just as satisfied and don’t feel cheater like I do when eating small portions on a larger plate. Sounds crazy. I am a diced to sweets and they are my biggest downfall. So hard to control. 🙁

      • I have also started eating off of a smaller plate. I actually think it may be a salad plate. I am a visual person so when I fill up the smaller plate I am just as satisfied and don’t feel cheater like I do when eating small portions on a larger plate. Sounds crazy. I am a diced to sweets and they are my biggest downfall. So hard to control. 🙁

    • I too have large salad bowls that hold 2 cups of mixed greens next to the smaller plates! My husband age 61 and our two sons 22/17 have huge metabolisms which I have not and take thyroid medications. The portion size comparisons impressed all of us and we are helping each other with this gained knowledge to heathier meals! Thank you all so much! I love this network with my new Fitbit!

  • This was extremely helpful for me. Visually seeing The portions was awesome, and communicating that The food manufacturer determines the portion, not necessarily what’s best for you. I am truly horrified with the pasta portion. I’ m not sure I can completely honor that small size!!
    Reading the labels on food helped my eating habits tremendously. Now portion control and strength training along with 10,000 steps I believe will take me to actually seeing lbs drop.
    The one area I didn’t see you cover was potion control for eating whole fruits alone. Also expound on organic vs. Regular food.

  • Extremely helpful. My Friend usually cooks. He cooks healthy meals but prepares my plate with way to much food. Keeping me from losing weight. I am going to start preparing my own plate and measure on the food scale. We both track our calories ect. In apps. I never wanted to hurt his feelings. Your info is great, thank you

  • I am a vegetarian. Use lot of lentins. They are healthy but easy to overdo because they r packed with calories. I use to eat them like soup. Not good. I thought to mention this , for lot of people from India that is problem and they do not realize it

  • Thanks for the portion size photos. They really bring home the message clearly. What is missing is a 2 cup serving of steamed veggies =80 calories.
    We don’t have to be hungry since veggies are mostly low cal.
    Glad to have a nutritionist aboard.

  • Hi Carol here. Just got my fit bit today looking forward to utilizing it. My question is I can use a salad plate to eat to control portions but do u have a suggestion for my husband. He’s 6’2″ 275lbs. I know he needs more than me but what can I suggest he do to wrangle portion size for him

  • Hi there, I’ve been way too generous in dishing out oversized and not decent portions but I’m learning from this and my daughter who is also a nutritionist that size does matter and being stingy is key, as long as you’re relating to yourself and perhaps helping a friend out too! 53 more pounds to go!

  • The visuals for portion size are extremely helpful and a real eye-opener for me, especially the pasta recommendation! Since I began logging my food intake, I’ve become more aware that I need to downsize my typical portions and change some of my meal choices. For example, I was shocked to find that my usual “healthy” breakfast of organic granola, yogurt and fruit packed in more calories than a fried egg and two pieces of bacon! Who knew?

  • Does anyone have a simple solution to serving size management between men and women? My husband is 40 pounds over weight and I could stand to lose 10 pounds. When I reduce portion sizes he claims I am starving him. How can I tackle this fundamental issue? Thanks!!

    • I would say slowly decrease the portion until he gets used to it. Gradually over 21 days (the time it takes to create a new habit). My husband is the same way. We both now use smaller plates and feel full after regular portion recommendations. Sometimes he will go back for seconds if a workout has happened recently.

      • Hello everyone. This is such a helpful post for me. My husband & I are an older couple. So it’s just the 2 of us eating what I’ve decided to cook every day. For at least 2 years we’ve been making changes to our diets because we want to keep our weight down but, we really just want to improve our overall health. This post is fabulous. Portion control is an ongoing battle for us. Those photos of food servings are shocking to me. As others have said that pasta photo and the sliced cheese made me say “Oh oh!”. Even my morning breakfast shake is way too large! I’m going to use the smaller plates & measure our fruit & pasta servings. I need to stop figuring that we could have the left overs to eat tomorrow. I will cook only enough for 1 meal and that might help us learn to eat smaller portions. Thanks!!

  • Hi everyone and a happy new to you all…..

    Tracie,
    This was good to read and thank goodness I know where I was going wrong this was a lot of help and I’m going to start tomorrow….
    thanks
    Suzie

  • diagonised with celiac i am having a difficult time finding everyday family friendly meals, I would like suggestions for that.

    Then trying to bake gluten free is difficult and expensive and tips?

    • Try the healthy food guide they have heaps of recipes for gluten intolerance.
      Also brown rice, quinoa is good I find.
      http://www.healthyfood.co.nz/newsearch?api=gluten+free
      anyway here is the link and I hope it helps. Health food stores usually have good gluten free stuff (at least here in NZ as do a lot of supermarkets)
      It does feel tricky but then you get used to it. There is a coeliac society too which can give you good ideas.
      all the best

    • Which country are you in? My fiancé was diagnosed coeliac 18 months ago and we have now a gluten free household (easier because it’s just the two of us than with children too I imagine) in UK we have free prescriptions for staple gf products but some councils are now phasing that out. Must supermarket sell good gf products. We find Schar bread one of the best, not cardboard tasting! Do beware though, many gf breads are high in sugar and fat to make them taste ok, so potentially calorie loaded. One of the most nutrionally balanced is Juvela (these are the prescription ones but you can buy direct as well: http://www.juvela.co.uk). Our Coeliac UK website has loads of recipes, and through your doctor you should be directed to your one in your country. There will also be connected groups local to you – I found ours through Facebook. There are also some fantastic sensible everyday recipe books. Be aware gluten appears in things you would never expect, such as sweets and candies, and most sauces. You’ll become a label reader! Honestly it’s not as bad as you think finding products now, and adjusting your food, and my fiancé is so much healthier now. Make sure you get plenty of iron and calcium in your diet. Your dietician should tell you and help you with this. Good luck!

  • so good to have a visual clue for portion size. much more handy when out or rushing… no need to grab the old measure cups or scales… just think … tennis, gold, batteries 🙂

  • Hi everyone! I’s excited to work at becoming more healthy and active, not only for myself but for my family as well. One of my big issues are over eating which I think is because I tend too eat to fast and I am also a sugar lover! Any tips on how to slow down on the sweets? Its hard to say no.

  • Hi everyone, I’m new to the fitbit way. I’ve been trying to walk 3,000 steps every other day. I’m taking it slow because I have arthritis in my knees (a leftover from my jogging days) and try not to push it too soon. But I also want to eat less and I try to stick to more veggies and fruits, but without too much success. I need to lose 20 lbs or more and any helpful tips you can give to the “newbie” on the block would be much appreciated. BTW, chocolate and pretzels are my weakness, and overcrowding my plate at meals. Like Nicole said, “It’s hard to say no in a family of 6.”

  • I walk 5000 steps everyday as I am busy with my work and I have 75 kgs and I want to lose weight so can u please suggest some good diet for my whole day to shred weight??

  • Portion sizing is DEFINITELY one of the big things that I struggle with. I come from a family where we were all “larger” people and portions were always fairly generous. Seeing what *should* be on that plate really puts it into perspective – definitely helps with knowing what I should be aiming for (size-wise) in meals.
    Does anyone know of a good (as in, accurate, given this is the internet!) table (or similar) of recommended portion sizes that I could print off and stick to my fridge? 🙂

  • I’ve been logging my food pretty consistently for a while now. Scary how fast the calories add up, especially when you aren’t paying attention. I found these food visuals really helpful…especially the pasta!!

  • Hi. I would like more guidance on protein guidance, meat or vegetarian beans / lentils if possible. I also would like to have a chart on the fridge

  • I can totally sympathise with anyone who have problems with portion control. I use to eat whatever I like and because I was pretty athletic and always doing some form of sport I never gained any weight. Unfortunately age has caught up with me and it feels as if I only have to look at food and I can gain weight. I have real issues with controlling how much I eat so I have thrown away the larger plates and now use a small plate, I have more veg, less carbs like pasta, potato and rice. I also joined a slimming group which helps keep me in check as I have to weight in every week. I have lost about stones (about 42lbs so far) which has improved my health and general fitness. My fitbit tracker helps me to keep moving and I almost never take it off – only to have a shower or to charge it up.

  • Portion control on the mixed greens is a little over the top as long as your not slathering it in high fat processed dressing.

  • How important is it to be sure to eat the number of calories recommended for me on my Dashboard each day? I am typically “under”.

  • Thanks!! This article helps a lot. I have only recently started using the app to track my food. I need to make sure I eat enough every day, and was surprised that I need to eat more. I also need to make sure to eat good food and not as many sweets. The app is a big help. I would’ve loved it if you would’ve shown portion control amounts for meat,chicken and fish.

  • Thanks!! This article helps a lot. I have only recently started using the app to track my food. I need to make sure I eat enough every day, and was surprised that I need to eat more. I also need to make sure to eat good food and not as many sweets. The app is a big help. I would’ve loved it if you would’ve shown portion control amounts for meat,chicken and fish.

  • Thanks!! This article helps a lot. I have only recently started using the app to track my food. I need to make sure I eat enough every day, and was surprised that I need to eat more. I also need to make sure to eat good food and not as many sweets. The app is a big help. I would’ve loved it if you would’ve shown portion control amounts for meat,chicken and fish. It would be really helpful to show protien amounts for meats.

  • One thing not mentioned here re portion control, is that people are likely arriving to dinner time on a very empty stomach. Try incorporating a healthy late afternoon snack, such as the nut serving, piece of fruit, veggie sticks (no fatty dips), cheese, etc., and you may have more will power to stay away from loading up your plate.

  • I thought the portion size pictures look way too small. I eat a big size of fiber cereal then I go to do Zumba or more activities and I am burning calories.
    I dont want to starve myself that bad. The main key to loose weight is stay active for the day and eat healthy foods. So far this is helping me.

  • I am slowly figuring out my Fitbit after leaving it sit over a year. First updated the many needed versions with help from a rep by my cell. Now I have gone through Fitbit articles. A plan of attack is formulating on portion sizes, movement and mix if meals. Don’t want it to get overwhelming in this hectic day and age

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