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Just How Much Food Is on That Plate? Understanding Portion Control

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Serving Sizes Essential to Good Nutrition | Nutritional Needs Vary | Ways to Estimate Portion Sizes | Seek Dietary Guidance

Controlling Portion Sizes

Most people consume far more calories than they realize. The culprit? A warped sense of portion size.

Did you know that a portion size is different than a serving size? If not, you are not alone. Since the mid-1980's, portion sizes have grown. This means Americans eat more calories than we need without realizing it. One way to bring yourself back to a healthy weight is to manage your calorie intake. The US Department of Agriculture recommends that you enjoy your food and eat less. By doing so, you will not have to completely eliminate foods you like. You will just have to control portion sizes.

Serving Sizes Essential to Good Nutrition

Experts say that understanding the concept of standard serving sizes is essential to good nutrition. Standardized serving sizes help consumers, health professionals, and food manufacturers find a common language for the sake of communication.

Although serving sizes are standardized, individual portion sizes will vary because people have different caloric requirements. Portion size also depends on a person's specific weight management goals and health needs. For example, pregnant and breastfeeding women may require larger portions of food than do women who are not pregnant or nursing.

Nutritional Needs Vary

Portion sizes and overall dietary requirements depend on several factors, including activity level. For example, an inactive person may only need three-quarters to one cup of cereal in the morning, which is the usual serving size of most varieties. But someone who runs several miles a day or who engages in other forms of aerobic exercise may need two or three standard serving sizes.

To help determine a standard serving size, measure out what is listed on the "Nutrition Facts" food label.

Ways to Estimate Portion Sizes

What is a portion size? Try followingthese models to approximate portion sizes:

  • A deck of playing cards = one serving (three ounces) of meat, poultry, or fish (can also use the palm of a woman's hand or a computer mouse)
  • A baseball = one serving (one cup) of pasta
  • 4 stacked dice = one serving (1 1/2 ounces) of cheese
  • A tennis ball = one serving (1/2 cup) of fresh fruit
  • When at home:
    • Take time to eyeball the serving sizes of your favorite foods using some of the models listed above.
    • Measure out single servings onto your plates and bowls, and remember what they look like. Figure out how many servings should make up your personal portion, depending on whether you need to lose, gain, or maintain weight.
    • Avoid serving food family style. Serve up plates with appropriate portions in the kitchen, and do not go back for seconds.
    • Never eat out of the bag or carton.
  • When in restaurants:
    • Ask for half or smaller portions. Do not worry if it does not seem cost-effective; it is worth it.
    • Eyeball your appropriate portion, set the rest aside, and ask for a doggie bag right away.
    • If you order dessert, share it, or choose a healthier option like fruit.

Seek Dietary Guidance

If you are unsure about your personal nutrition requirements, go to Choose My Plate website to get eating recommendations based on factors like your age, sex, and activity level. For an even more individualized plan and for motivation, seek the advice of a registered dietitian. These professionals can create individual menus and food plans that are suited to your specific weight management and overall health goals.


Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics


US Department of Agriculture Choose My Plate



Dietitians of Canada


Health Canada Food and Nutrition



Are you practicing portion control? Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website. Available at: http://www.eatright.org/Public/content.aspx?id=6442468864&terms=portion%20control. Accessed February 20, 2013.

Dietary guidelines for Americans 2010. US Department of Agriculture and US Department of Health and Human Services. Available at: http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2010/DietaryGuidelines2010.pdf. Accessed February 18, 2013.

Kausman R. Tips for long-term weight management. Aust Fam Physician. 2000;29(4):310-313.

Kesman RL, Ebbert JO, Harris KI, et al. Portion control for the treatment of obesity in the primary care setting. BMC Res Notes. 2011;4:346.

Portion distortion website: Learn how to avoid holiday weight gain by watching portion sizeshttp://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/news/press-releases/2004/portion-distortion-web-site-learn-how-to-avoid-holiday-weight-gain-by-watching-portion-sizes.html. Released November 18, 2004. Accessed February 20, 2013.

Sacks FM, Bray GA, Carey VJ. Comparison of weight-loss diets with different compositions of fat, protein, and carbohydrates. N Engl J Med. 2009;360(9):859-873.

Tips for eating out. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website. Available at: http://www.eatright.org/Public/content.aspx?id=6850. Updated November 2012. Accessed February 18, 2013.

Weight management & calories. US Department of Agriculture Choose My Plate website. Available at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/weight-management-calories/weight-management.html. Accessed February 18, 2013.

Last reviewed February 2013 by Brian Randall, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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