Psst, You're Probably Eating Too Much. Here's What Servings Should Look Like

October 9, 2015
by Dana Poblete for Thrive Market
Psst, You're Probably Eating Too Much. Here's What Servings Should Look Like

Step into any American restaurant, and as soon as the plate hits the table, it’s evident that our ideas about serving sizes have become distorted over the years.

The concept of serving sizes first originated in in the early 1990s when the Food and Drug Administration first introduced nutrition labels. At the time, these numbers were determined by the average amount of food that Americans ate in one sitting. Fast forward more than 20 years later, and colossal burgers and heaping bowls of linguine are the new normal—and the average American is about 20 pounds heavier.

In the next two years, the FDA will shake things up once again and change these serving sizes on labels to better reflect how much we're really eating. Their aim is to make it easier for consumers to see the nutritional numbers that correspond with what they’re actually going to eat and drink—because after all, it’s unrealistic to assume that people stop after gulping down 3/4 of a 12-ounce bottled drink with a serving size of 8 ounces. (And if that sentence was at all confusing, that's pretty much what Big Food companies are banking on in their bid to get consumers to throw their hands up and just eat.)

Though matching nutrition labels to real life portions makes a lot of sense, there's also plenty of controversy surrounding increasing serving sizes altogether. Some critics say that making serving sizes larger would only give consumers a free pass to eat and drink more—and this hypothesis is backed up by several studies.

It's not a secret—habitual overeating can cause weight gain and can ultimately lead to overweight and obesity, whose deadly side effects include a high risk for heart disease, diabetes, stroke, hypertension, and even some cancers. Portion control can be an effective tool against this epidemic. For some, that's easier said than done, but it all starts with awareness. One trick: Use smaller plates and bowls. Also, consider the USDA’s guidelines for daily recommendations for some of the basic healthy food groups; it’s a great educational resource for plotting out what a balanced diet should look like.

But we get it—numbers, proportions, and mental math can seem like a lot of work when all you want to  know is if a handful of almonds is overkill. We've got you: Here are some visual guides that can help demystify what constitutes moderate portions for nutritious foods, before the concept of serving sizes becomes even more abstract.

Fruit

Serving sizes of fruit
Daily recommendation: 4 half-cup servings
Single servings:
1/2 small apple
1/2 large orange
1/2 large banana (8 to 9 inches long)
4 large strawberries
¼ cup dried fruit
16 seedless grapes

Vegetables

Serving sizes of vegetables
Daily recommendation: 3 one-cup servings
Single servings:
1 large tomato (3” diameter)
1 large baked sweet potato (2 1/4" or more diameter)
1 heaping handful of most veggies
2 medium whole carrots
2 cups raw greens (including spinach, kale, romaine, watercress, escarole)

Grains

Serving sizes of grains
Daily recommendation: 6 to 8 one-ounce servings
Single servings:
1 regular slice of bread
½ cup cooked oatmeal
½ cup cooked pasta or rice
7 square or round crackers
3 cups popped popcorn
(The USDA advises that at least half of all grains eaten should be whole grains.)

Protein

Serving sizes of proteins
Daily recommendation: 2 ½ to 3 two-ounce servings per day
Single serving:
1/2 to 3/4 can of tuna
2 eggs
1/2 cup cooked beans
small 2-ounce steak
24 almonds

Photo credit: Alicia Cho

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This article is related to: Fruit, Grains, Nutrition, Protein, USDA, Vegetables, Portion control, FDA

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43 thoughts on “Psst, You're Probably Eating Too Much. Here's What Servings Should Look Like”

  • Amanda Van Zetten
    Amanda Van Zetten March 7, 2016 at 2:40 pm

    What about dairy servings?

    Reply
    • Jessica Daniel

      I love cheese, half and half, and whole chocolate milk as much as the next guy but I bet they left it out because we don't really need dairy. My grandpa used to say cows milk is for baby cows can't say I disagree with him...

      Reply
    • moco25

      The article doesn't mention it so you can't have it lol

      Reply
  • Jake Bertz

    Who the fuck anywhere ever in all of human history has eaten a 2oz steak? A starving child that caught a rabbit?

    Without knowing a persons physical makeup and activity level, it's literally impossible to know what their serving size should be.

    Reply
  • Nikki Ledford

    These recommendations are ridiculous. Just take a look at the pictures of grains vs. fruits and vegetables. You're telling me that I should be consuming more colorless, nutrient poor food than colorful fresh produce? Ugh. USDA has always been a shoddy standin for nutritional advice but it's really discouraging to see Thrive promoting this.

    Reply
    • Chris John Riley
      Chris John Riley September 4, 2016 at 1:49 pm

      If you're eating the whole grain, less processed options, you aren't getting nutrient poor food. Just different nutrients that contribute to an overall healthy, balanced diet. Just because it isn't brightly colored, doesn't mean it's devoid of macro-/micronutrients and bioactive components.

      Reply
      • Nikki Ledford

        Maybe, but the representation of produce in this particular article is unimpressive. And the photo and caption of the whole grains section show processed grain products which likely have other ingredients like binders, conditioners, and preservatives.

        Reply
    • tcjohnson4

      I encourage you to consider who the target audience is for this piece.

      Reply
      • Nikki Ledford

        Thanks for the encouragement. Upon reflection, this article is written for the Thrive Market audience, whom I imagine are a relatively health-minded crew of people. Which reminds me of the saying, "It's not the healthy who need a doctor, but the ill". But that's besides the point. The written content of the article is addressing the issue of overeating and portion size. It seems to me that if you are trying to encourage people to limit their portions to address weight gain, you are doing a great disservice by showing people limitations on fruit and vegetable servings. Why not give these people the freedom to consume as much fresh produce as they like and limit the foods that are not as full of nutrients? That was my original point. The way this article reads is showing you limits on the foods we eat. Real, fresh food does not lead to overeating. Crackers do.

        Reply
        • tcjohnson4

          Being health-minded isn't always being correct. People can still be ignorant on the intricacies of diet and nutrition while having the best of intentions. The first sentence of the last paragraph is pretty good indication of who the author is trying to target---people who are indeed health-minded but don't have the mental capacity or energy to figure out what is actually right for them. She seems to be providing a tip-of-the-iceberg reference for people. Don't necessarily think it's the most effective way of watching what you eat but it could be a good solution for a certain group of dieters.

          I disagree with you that showing weight-conscious people limitations on fresh produce is doing them a disservice. It's important to understand the relationship between fat-loss and carbohydrate consumption, particularly fructose consumption which is the carb found in fruits. Fructose isn't widely used by the body and instead will be used to replenish liver-glycogen. If liver glycogen stores are full then it will be more difficult for the individual to enter a "fat burn" mode. Considering most people looking to eat healthy probably won't engage in much exercise of physical activity, they won't be doing much to deplete liver-glycogen levels. Which is why fruit consumption can be a bad thing for people looking to trim up. The liver can only hold onto so much glycogen before it begins to convert fructose into fat and storing it. So to encourage someone to just eat as many nutrient rich foods as possible is bad advice. For example, liver is one of the most nutrient dense foods but eating too much at a time can cause Vitamin A toxicity. Eating too many fruits (fructose) will hinder fat loss.

          Reply
          • Nikki Ledford

            I agree with most of what you shared. I think that the fear of fructose in fruit is a bit overblown, especially in some paleo circles. Can too much fruit hinder weight loss? Yes. But if someone is battling their weight and a craving for junk food, would I ever fault them for reaching for an extra apple or handful of strawberries... Definitely not. You have to start somewhere. I do wish that Thrive had not included dried fruit in the fruit section. It's so much better to opt for the whole food unless you're liver and weight is in good shape. Honestly, I think that those reading this article are more likely to overdo it on the grain carbohydrates than fruit.

            Reply
  • Unoriginal

    Remember when fda said we should drink coke?

    Reply
  • nancystockdale
    nancystockdale May 17, 2016 at 2:57 am

    You should never EVER have a direct mail, advert, or other title that tells people they "eat too much." There are MILLIONS of people in this country with disordered eating. You just triggered loads of people with that. Learn to promote portion sizes in a way that isn't shaming or triggering.

    Reply
    • Karen

      oversensitive. i thought the article just gave info about portion sizing- much needed info. I didn't see shaming.

      Reply
      • nancystockdale

        Just because you "don't see shaming" doesn't mean it isn't shaming. I'm not "oversensitive," I'm concerned about disordered eating and how millions of people are triggered in regard to bad advice like this article provides. You appear to be lacking in the "maybe I should take a look at what this person is saying, I've never thought of it that way, huh" gene, though. Your perspective isn't the only one.

        Reply
        • Karen

          I didn't get a shaming vibe. that's my opinion. ironic, a person complaining about shaming puts a nasty dig in there- "you appear to be lacking in... gene". learn to promote other opinions in a way that isn't shaming or triggering.

          Reply
          • nancystockdale

            You bring up "oversensitive" when I'm talking about people's lives - I don't have a problem shaming your lack of empathy. Eating disorders are life and death situations - sending out mass emails that proclaim "you're eating too much" can literally contribute to people's deaths. Done with you.

            Reply
            • Amy Sprouse

              Nancy, calm down. We understand your point, and I don't think anyone would argue against eating disorders being a real thing. I work with women who have eating disorders, and studied this topic in college.
              I'd be really happy if those women ate 4 half-cup servings of fruit, 3 one-cup servings of vegetables, 6-8 one-oz servings of grain, and 2 1/2-3 two-oz servings of meat/protein in a day. Wouldn't you?
              This article wasn't saying you're fat if you eat more than that. It was saying that one serving of meat isn't an 8 ounce steak. That mentality could really hurt someone's health. In fact it does-- many people misunderstand portion sizes. This article was looking to help clear that up.
              Also, you were really rude to Karen. She wasn't attacking you. She was just saying she didn't feel the same way as you, and you totally attacked her. I highly doubt you would speak this way in person. I would never want to meet the person you represent yourself as on the web, but I'm sure I would like you in person because you care about eating disorders :) so maybe, be more accurate of your true self.

              Reply
              • nancystockdale

                "Calm down" is rude. Declaring someone "oversensitive" - one word, stated as fact (see her first comment)- is rude. This article was the subject of a large debate among several people I know with EDs who talked very specifically about how the wording of the headline triggered them. And, where's the science? This is not the way to talk about portions or nutrition. But whatever - I'm done. Back to shopping on thrive and staying out of the forums. Goodbye. ugh.

                Reply
  • cookcreative

    Boy does Thrive need to learn Paleo 101. 6-8 servings of grains? Are you kidding me?

    Reply
    • NoelCrystal

      They are not taking into accout the people who are Diabetes, type 1 or 2 or pre diabetic. The carbohydrates need to be decreased, the beans also need to be cut down. No chocolates, and last week one of the first things they offered me 6 dark chocolate bars. Did not order my partner is pre Diabetic, managing it with diet, and doing a good job.She voluntarily took all her chocolate candy out of the house and gave it to the church. I don't like chocolate so it don't bother me. I don't eat alot of carbohydrates especially beans, my down fall is pasta but I don't eat alot. We will try it soon.

      Reply
      • Spincado's Eatery
        Spincado's Eatery August 18, 2016 at 5:41 am

        So, it appears to me that this "food pyramid" is the same as we learned in school health class as small children, or on the back of a box of KIX. I'd have to say that eat styles are so versatile now a days and we have created hybrids of said food styles who's to say that we can even go off of this old fashioned pyramid. I'm 100 lbs, this is way too much food for me. My boyfriend is 210 lb mechanic, this is how much he eats before noon and I would be stuffed, he would be starving.

        Reply
  • theflyinglizard
    theflyinglizard May 17, 2016 at 6:54 am

    Actually, there is NO evidence that being overweight/obese CAUSES heart disease, etc. Correlation is not causation. Heart disease may be correlated with a larger body size or a higher percentage of body fat, but it's also correlated with male-pattern baldness, and it's obviously ludicrous to suggest that male-pattern baldness causes heart disease. Similarly, there are no studies linking body size or body fat percentage **causally** with heart disease. All we know is that they tend to occur together at a disproportionate rate. Maybe the same people who are genetically predisposed to have bigger bodies are also genetically predisposed to heart disease. Maybe heart disease in larger-bodied people is caused by the stress of living in a fatphobic society, and being fat is actually benign in isolation.

    As for the average American being 20 lbs heavier, the average American is also taller than they were before, and less Caucasian than they were before, and thanks to the Baby Boomers, older than they were before. Each of those factors could explain some additional weight.

    This article does not science.

    Reply
  • Mihaela

    I'm disappointed ab Thrive promoting so many grains/carbohydrates and so little protein and fat! They need to learn ab the newest studies in Ketogenic: Dr. Dominic D'Agostino's podcast: www.fourhourworkweek.com/2016/07/06/dom-dagostino-part-2

    Reply
  • Keith J Foisy

    Imagine how many rubbermaid/tupperware containers would fill your fridge if you ate 1/2 an apple, 1/2 an orange, 1/2 a banana? The banana thing cracks me up. As long as the banana is 8-9 inches long, then you should only eat 1/2. So if it's 5 inches long, do I save the 1-inch?

    A lot of people below have already said similar comments. Trying to do a "one-size fits all" serving size seems like a good concept, but it's not applicable. Everyone has different needs for their body. The guy who works in landscaping for 10-12 hour days and burns 2,500 calories working needs more fuel than a guy like me who works in an office setting.

    I don't understand how common sense gets completely thrown out when it comes to food. You mentioned colossal burgers in your article. Do thousands of people eat colossal burgers and piles of fries on a daily basis? I've always viewed going out to eat as a treat when you order that colossal burger because it's not something I eat regularly.

    Reply
  • inawe77

    Nice one guys! How the article on correct meal portion sizes is followed by links to buy chocolate. Duh.

    Reply
  • moco25

    This makes no sense, for one the visuals don't even show what's stated....16 grapes when they show 14....how is 6 or 7 prunes (dried whole plums) equal to 4 strawberries? How is one tomato equal in size/calories to one large sweet potato? How does the same serving size apply to a child, a petite woman and a tall, large guy?

    Reply
  • Barbara Davis

    I agree with all of the replies here and unless I've missed it, no one mentioned the Paleo lifestyle. Big Ag and Big Pharma continue to work with the USDA to convince us that we must eat grains. Someone mentioned that cow's milk is for baby cows and to that point, grains are for cows, sheep, horses, etc. Early man did not eat grains. That didn't start happening until much later in history when our prey animals started diminishing for whatever reason in any one given area.

    Reply
  • Nina Ivanchenko

    Absolutely, this is RIDICULOUS!!! How is a physically active person supposed to survive on that??? Especially that LITTLE protein? Are you kidding me?

    Reply
  • Sylvia Wood

    Count the grapes.

    Reply
  • newbloomer

    Our portions are a lot larger because we eat whole foods, plant-based. I weigh myself only to be sure that I weigh more than 115 pounds, my normal BMI.

    Reply
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