How much food should be on your plate at mealtime? What’s the right portion size? “Portion” is actually one of those words that doesn’t have an exact meaning. When nutritionists or dieticians speak about food, they’re more apt to use the term “serving size,” which is a measure that does have a quantitative basis because it’s based on the Nutrition Facts that are found on the labels of most packaged foods.
One thing’s for sure: The bigger your portion size, the more calories are on your plate. And the more calories you consume without burning them off in the course of your day, the more likely you are to pack on the pounds. Let’s talk about portions and what they really (should) look like.
Portion sizes have steadily increased over the last few decades. In the 1950s, portion sizes were much smaller than they are today, and the size of the average serving of French fries has more than doubled in the past 70 years. The size of the typical hamburger has gone up by more than 300 percent. It’s hardly surprising that the average American today weighs significantly more than he did when fast food was a novelty: The average American adult male in 2019 weighs 28 pounds more than in the 1950s while the average American adult female weighs 24.5 pounds more.
Is there a culprit? Bigger portions isn’t solely to blame, but scientists say that part of the issue is that retailers discount food that’s sold in larger quantities. With more available food in the refrigerator, there’s a temptation to cook larger quantities and to put more on the plate. When faced with larger portion sizes, people will eat all the food offered them.
Another factor contributing to the rise in portion sizes is that people are eating out more now. Offering customers more bang for their buck in the form of larger portion sizes is seen by restaurants as a way of gaining competitive edge.
How Much Do We Need?
Of course, some people need more calories than others. The ideal caloric intake depends on a variety of factors, including gender, age and body type. During adolescence, for example, the body requires more calories than at practically any other point in life. On average, a teenage boy will burn 2,800 calories in the course of a day while a teenage girl will burn 2,200. Athletes require more calories than people who live a sedentary lifestyle. Some competitive athletes need to consume between 4,000 and 6,000 calories a day.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has published dietary guidelines that serve as a good reference point for the types of foods that should comprise a healthy diet and the portions of those foods that people should be eating during any given day.
Generally speaking, a healthy diet should include:
Starchy foods: Starchy foods are the body’s chief source of energy. After they’re eaten, starches get broken down into glucose, which provides fuel for our muscles and brain. Starchy foods include things like pasta, bread, rice, potatoes and most breakfast cereals – you know, the good stuff. But a little starch goes a long way. Nutritionists recommend the following serving sizes for starchy foods:
- Bread: 2 regular-sized slices
- Potatoes: 5 small potatoes
- Pasta: 3 oz. before cooking
Non-dairy proteins: Nondairy proteins contain the amino acids that promote cell growth and repair. Nondairy proteins include foods like nuts, fish, chicken, beef and eggs. You don’t need much of these to sustain your body, but you should try to work in some high-quality, nondairy protein sources where possible. Recommended portion guidelines are:
- Beef or chicken: 3 oz. after cooking
- Fish: 5 oz. after cooking
- Eggs: 2
Dairy and dairy alternatives: Dairy foods like milk, yogurt and cheese are an excellent source of the calcium bodies need to keep bones strong. For one portion of these foods, stick to these guidelines:
- Milk: 8 oz.
- Yogurt: 6 oz.
- Cheese: 1 oz.
Fruits and vegetables: Fruits and vegetables contain a bevy of vitamins, minerals and fibers. Many nutritionists believe that fruits and vegetables should make about a third of a healthy person’s diet. The standard portion size of any fresh fruit or vegetable is 4 oz.
Oils and fat: Every person needs some amount of fat in her diet. They get a bad rap, but healthy fats are an important source of vitamins A and D, and your body uses fat to make hormones, among other things. Nutritionists recommend sticking with unsaturated fats and limiting your intake to between 1.5 oz. and 3 oz. a day.
What’s a Good Portion Size?
Since caloric needs vary a lot according to a person’s age, gender and level of activity, it stands to reason that portion sizes should vary, too. Here’s a look at recommended portion sizes broken down by age:
Children between 1 and 10: As anybody who’s ever ordered off a children’s menu at a restaurant knows, child-sized portions are smaller than adult-sized portions. Growing children need to consume between 1,000 and 2,000 calories a day. A typical child-sized portion of meat or fish will be between 1 and 2 oz. A portion of bread will be between one-half slice and a slice.
Adolescents: Adolescent bodies are growing at an accelerated rate, so their caloric needs are high, and the portions of food on their plates can be larger. They also may need to eat more often. A portion of protein for an adolescent should be 2 to 3 oz. Teens can eat the same sized portions of starch and dairy as younger children.
Adults: A single portion of meat or fish will be 3 oz. If you don’t have a scale handy, this will be about the size of a deck of cards or the palm of your hand. A portion size of pasta that weighs 2.5 oz. will be the size of a tennis ball. Nutritionists recommend eating 5 servings of fruits and vegetables throughout the day to satisfy cravings and keep from overeating less nutritious foods.
Senior adults: As people age, their metabolism slows, and they don’t need as many calories. Portion sizes may remain the same, but senior citizens may not need to eat certain foods like meat or starch at every meal.