Every five years since 1980 the U.S. Government publishes the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). A main emphasis of the DGA over the years has been advice on how much of certain food groups and nutrients to consume, encouraging Americans to eat more of those that we don’t eat enough of (e.g., calcium, dietary fiber and vitamin D) and less of those that we eat in excess (e.g., added sugars, saturated fat and sodium).
Previous versions of the DGA have noted the importance of choosing more nutrient-dense foods, so that we are more likely to get all the nutrition we need within the calories it takes to maintain a healthy weight. The 2020—2025 DGA remind us that the benefits of healthy eating don’t appear overnight. Instead, they add up over time with every bite, having the potential to contribute to good health. Aside from key recommendations for specific nutrients and food groups, one of the main action-oriented principles that the 2020—2025 DGA offers to help build healthy eating patterns, is to pay attention to portion sizes.
What is Portion Size?
Portion size is a term that is often confused with serving size. Understanding the difference between the two is important. Serving sizes appear on the Nutrition Facts label, and that amount is used to calculate the nutrient information that is displayed. But serving sizes listed on food packaging are not a recommendation for how much to eat or drink. Serving sizes are required by law to be based, in part, on food consumption data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to derive the amount of a food or beverage that people typically consume in one sitting.
In contrast, portion sizes are not established and regulated by the government and do not appear on the Nutrition Facts label like serving sizes. Instead, portion size refers to the amount of a food or beverage that is served to us, or that we choose to fill our plates and glasses with. Advice on the importance of right-sizing the portions that we consume often comes from nutrition professionals, because proper portion sizes can be unique to every individual and may be different than the serving size listed on Nutrition Facts labels.
Portion Sizes Have Grown
Foods and beverages are more available today than ever before, and the quantities that are offered have increased in recent decades. Restaurant portions are significantly larger than they used to be, and so are many individually packaged foods and beverages in grocery and convenience stores. Larger portions are attractive to consumers because they often provide more value, so more people are purchasing them more often. Increased demand for larger portions contributes to them becoming more widely available, which can ultimately impact the amount we typically consume in one sitting.
Why is Portion Size Important?
While there are many factors that affect to how much we eat, the size of the portion that we are served is one of the most influential factors. Research studies have demonstrated that when larger portion sizes are offered, more food and more calories are consumed. Research has also shown that the opposite effect can occur—that smaller, pre-portioned foods and portion-controlled plates can lead to consuming less food and fewer calories, resulting in weight loss. Other research has shown that learning portion-control strategies can help people make fewer energy-dense and more nutrient-dense choices, which even when consuming similar portion sizes can result in consuming fewer calories overall.
The importance of consuming proper portion sizes seems to be understood by many people. The IFIC 2021 Food & Health Survey found that portion size is a top factor in how Americans define a healthy eating pattern. Nearly half of survey participants ranked eating appropriate portion sizes at each meal as one of the top three characteristics involved in eating healthy, making it the most common response.
Consistently choosing appropriate portion sizes is central to following a healthy eating pattern. It is especially important when consuming less nutrient-dense foods and beverages—those that are high in calories and nutrients that we should limit and low in the nutrients that we should be consuming more of. The DGA encourage the consumption of healthier foods, beverages and portion sizes even from a young age.
While a healthy eating pattern can include added sugars, saturated fat and sodium, there is only so much room available for them. Although some may find the strategy of completely eliminating foods and beverages high in added sugars, saturated fat and sodium to be an effective strategy, for most it isn’t sustainable over time. Approaches that seek less restriction and more flexibility may be easier to practice every day. They focus on making nutrient-dense choices more often, while also allowing for the enjoyment of indulgent foods and drinks on occasion— just less frequently and in smaller portions.
Action Steps in Choosing Proper Portion Sizes
Whether eating out, at home or on-the-go, determining how much to eat can be difficult; especially when we are hungry or access to healthier options is limited. Here are few actionable steps that can help right-size the portions that we consume.
On-the-Go or at the Grocery Store
Many packaged foods and beverages come in various sizes, including smaller, single-serve packaging. In addition to being more convenient to take on-the-go, choosing smaller options more often can be beneficial in a variety of other ways. Smaller, single-serve packages can help reduce the calories we consume in one sitting from high-calorie beverages and indulgent snacks. They might also help to reduce the amount of food we waste. But perhaps most importantly, choosing smaller packaged items may help reset our view of what appropriate portions should be, making it easier over time to eat and drink amounts that promote healthier overall eating patterns.
Restaurant portions are often larger than you might want or need to be satisfied. If you are dining at a new restaurant, it can be helpful to ask your server about the size of the portions. If the portions are generous, try choosing items that might come in smaller portions such as those described on the menu as appetizers, small plates or tapas. If you order a larger meal, there is no rule that says you must eat it all. But you don’t have to let food go to waste either—you can always take home your leftovers to enjoy later. If you are dining out with another person, consider sharing an entree. Some restaurants may even allow adults to order off the kids menu, the options for which are often smaller than adult portions.
Dining at Home
When we cook at home, we have control over the portions that we prepare, serve and consume. But knowing what the proper portion size is for certain foods can be confusing—our perspectives have become distorted over time. Take spaghetti for example. A reasonable portion of cooked spaghetti for most people is about one cup, which results from cooking two ounces of dry spaghetti. Two ounces is the serving size listed for spaghetti on food packages, but it may seem small because it is much less than the typical restaurant portion or the portion we might put on our plates at home. A food scale can help with measuring proper portions to cook for your meals. If you don’t have a food scale, check one of your kitchen utensils—it may contain a helpful hack. Some serving spoons are designed specifically for pasta and have a hole in their base that can be used to insert two ounces of dry spaghetti. If you don’t have such a utensil, you can make a small circle (about the size of a quarter) with your index finger and thumb to hand measure about two ounces of dry spaghetti.