Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Food portions and servings - how does it all add up?

When discussing food an interesting dichotomy presents itself. There are so many in this world that go without, and many who have an abundance. Ironically, in the land of plenty where many are overweight, many are also undernourished. That's partly because it's actually cheaper to buy fast foods than it is whole, fresh, unprocessed, foods like fruits and vegetables. It's no wonder that two-thirds of the US adult population is overweight (WIN). Clearly, for those of us fortunate enough to have access to food, making choices about what foods to buy and how much of them to eat can be complex. Misunderstanding of the concepts of food portions and servings only further complicates matters.

If you find the terms portion and serving confusing, than read on, because when it comes to successful weight management/reduction and healthy nutrition an understanding of these concepts is vital. Making healthy decisions about what and how much we eat every day depends on our knowledge of  portions and servings. So let's take a closer look. A portion is how much food we choose to eat and it's amazing how much portion sizes have increased over the years. A serving is a standard amount set by a government agency like the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), or sometimes set by others for recipes, cookbooks, or diet plans. So, they don't actually mean the same thing, even though you may hear them used interchangeably. 

Portions -

As mentioned above, portion sizes have dramatically changed over the years. We've gone from normal size to enough for 2 people, and in some cases "super-sized" or "biggie" portions. Because the transformation in portions has occurred gradually, we've adapted and don't think of these larger portions as being more than we're supposed to eat. The phrase "portion distortion" has been coined to label this mindset. The illustration below shows the portion distortion of some common foods (click on the image for larger view). 

Image from New Creation Fitness
Even the diameter of our dinner plates has increased by 2 1/2 inches in order to hold more food.  The take away from this illustration is to note the increase in the number of calories consumed by eating these larger portions of food. For a fun exercise, you can test your knowledge of portions and calories at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute's (NHLBI) website here. A helpful way to think about how much we're going to choose to put on our plates is by associating portions with common, everyday objects. This is shown in the above illustration under Measure Up, and The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) has put together a handy, wallet sized card that you can print and cut out. You can find it here.  

A few helpful tips on portion control:
  1. Many restaurants typically service jumbo portions, so when eating out try asking for half the meal to be put on a plate and half to be put into a go box. An entree can also be split with another person.
  2. Don't eat food out of the package. It's difficult to determine how much has been consumed, especially when the package is large.  Studies have shown that people underestimated how much they ate when eating from large packages.
  3. Eat with intention. Mindless eating while reading, working, watching TV leads to overeating.
  4. Putting food in big bowls on the table (family style eating) can lead to second and third helpings. Serve the food onto a plate in portions before sitting down to eat.
  5. Snacking is good IF it's healthy. Something like a small green salad, piece of fruit or handful of nuts can take the edge off of hunger and reduce the urge to overeat at meals.
  6. Drink plenty of water throughout the day. Sometimes thirst can be confused with hunger.
  7. Boredom eating - try taking a walk, or distracting yourself with a fun activity.
  8. Out of sight, out of mind. Store tempting foods out of sight, or don't buy them at all. (CDC)

Servings -

 Now that we understand that portions have grown way beyond healthy proportions, and we know how to better assess our portion sizes, let's take a look at servings. The NHLBI defines a serving as "a measured amount of food, such as one slice of bread or 1 cup of milk." As mentioned above, because of the increase in portions over the years, "some foods that people consume in one portion actually contain several servings." For example, a 20 ounce soda or 3 ounce bag of chips contain more than one serving (NHLBI).

In the US, The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are the gold standard of nutrition policy and education. The guidelines are reviewed, revised and published every five years to reflect the emerging scientific information on nutrition and health. The latest version came out in July of 2010 and will be updated again this year (2015). Here's the quick facts:
  1. Make smart choices from every food group.
  2. Mix up your choices within each food group. 
  3. Vary your fruits - think colors of the rainbow. 
  4. Vary your veggies - include more green leafy veggies.
  5. Get your calcium-rich foods, but make them low-fat (except for children).
  6. Make at least half your grains whole.
  7. Go lean with protein
  8. Avoid bad fats, especially the trans fats. Partially replace saturated fat with unsaturated fat.
  9. Include 2 servings of seafood each week.
  10. Limit salt, refined flour, sugars and processed foods that contain added sugar and salt.
  11. Find your balance between food and physical activity.
  12. Get the most nutrition out of your calories.(USDA
Image from Archive for Science Articles

What counts as a serving?

The table below outlines an average of the amount of food that counts as one serving based on a certain number of total daily calories. Remember that your food intake will depend on your unique required number of calories. This can be calculated for you at the Choose My Plate site.  They have a "super tracker" that helps keep track of activity, calories, foods, goals and recipes. Check it out here

If you choose to eat a larger portion, than count it as more than 1 serving. "For example, a dinner portion of spaghetti would count as 2 or 3 servings of pasta. Be sure to eat at least the lowest number of servings from the five major food groups listed below. You need them for the vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, and protein they provide. To help you decide which foods pack the biggest nutrient bang for your buck check out the USDA nutrient database or nutrition value.org's site. Just try to pick the lowest fat choices from the food groups. No specific serving size is given for the fats, oils, and sweets group, [which would be at the top of the table below], because the message is USE SPARINGLY" (NAL).  

Milk, Yogurt, and Cheese
1 cup of milk or yogurt1 1/2 ounces of natural cheese2 ounces of process cheese

Meat, Poultry, Fish, Dry Beans, Eggs, and Nuts
2-3 ounces of cooked lean meat, poultry, or fish1/2 cup of cooked dry beans, 1 egg, or 2 tablespoons of peanut butter count as 1 ounce of lean meat

1 cup of raw leafy vegetables1/2 cup of other vegetables, cooked or chopped raw3/4 cup of vegetable juice
1 medium apple, banana, orange1/2 cup of chopped, cooked, or canned fruit3/4 cup of fruit juice
Bread, Cereal, Rice, and Pasta
1 slice of bread1 ounce of ready-to-eat cereal1/2 cup of cooked cereal, rice, or pasta (NAL)

The main take away points are: 
  1. determine your daily calorie needs
  2. watch your portions
  3. learn the correct number of servings that are best for your calorie requirements
  4. choose a variety of foods from the food groups. 
Research clearly shows that disease and poor nutrition are linked. Although healthy, whole foods may seem more expensive in the short term, chronic diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease can be the ultimate cost of unhealthy food choices in the long run. The CDC has created a useful guide found here, called 30 Ways in 30 Days to Stretch your Fruit and Vegetable Budget. With the right tools and knowledge, making food choices that promote health is possible.   

Updated: 1/20/2015

Weight Control Information Network (WIN) - http://www.win.niddk.nih.gov/statistics/index.htm 
National Heart, Lung and Blood Instittue - http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/obesity/PortionSize_ZCard_taggd.pdf 
USDA -http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/DietaryGuidelines/2010/DGAC/Report/E-Appendix-E-1-Conclusions.pdf 
USDA - http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/DietaryGuidelines/2010/DGAC/Report/D-2-NutrientAdequacy.pdf
National Agriculture Library, USDA - http://www.nal.usda.gov
CDC http://www.fruitsandveggiesmatter.gov/downloads/Stretch_FV_Budget.pdf
CDC http://www.cdc.gov/healthycommunitiesprogram/overview/diseasesandrisks.htm

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