Do You Understand True Portion Sizes?

By Nicole German (RD, LD)

2735-581559_measuring_cup__.jpgWe have been told repeatedly that portion sizes of many restaurant foods are too large.

We know that our portion sizes need to be reduced for weight control, but how do we determine what the proper portion size is?
There are a few general portion rules for the food groups, but it always depends on how
many calories you need to eat in the day, which varies based on the individual’s needs. Some may need to only eat one portion while others may need to eat five or ten for optimal health.

Portion Guidelines

  • Fruit: One serving of most fruits is about 1 cup. A good visual to think of is a baseball or tennis ball size.
  • Vegetables: In most cases, it is not necessary to limit the vegetables. It is important to make sure we get enough! One cup raw equals one serving while half a cup cooked also equals one serving. The average person should try to eat four to five vegetable servings per day.
  • Protein: A good visual is a deck of cards or your meat portion should be able to fit within the palm of your hand. Don’t forget that eggs, tofu, and beans also count towards your protein intake. A general rule is that the average person should not eat more than two “palm size” servings of protein per day.
  • Fats: The portion size depends on the type of fat consumed. Fat is measured in teaspoons or tablespoons. Half a walnut or the size of your thumb is a good visual for 1 tablespoon. Think of a dice size for the teaspoon serving size.
  • Carbohydrates: The portion size for carbohydrates also varies. A good general rule is that half a cup equals one serving. If you fill up a cupcake wrapper with pasta or rice, that is one serving. For breads, think of the size of a cassette tape (if you remember what that looks like) as one serving. And for potatoes, think of a computer mouse as a serving size.
  • Dairy: One cup of milk, a six ounce container of yogurt, and a one ounce piece of cheese equals one portion. One ounce of cheese is about the size of a box of dental floss or two dice.

Do you have any good visuals that help you remember portion sizes?


  1. Ads_cc

    This is a really helpful WEBMD tool to measure portion control based on common objects–its pretty cool. It shows, for example, one ear of corn should be the length of a pencil.

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  3. SueK24

    I’ve followed the Zone diet and lifestyle for the past 16 years with excellent results. The basics for portion sizes in the Zone are tailored to suit your individual need, based on your amount of lean body mass and the type and amount of exercise activity you perform. Daily food intake includes just enough protein to maintain (or build if you wish) your current muscle mass, no more no less, and it is complimented with low density carbohydrates and heart healthy fats. An easy rule of thumb for Zone meal portions is to take lean protein the size and thickness of your palm, fill the rest of your plate with lots of veggies and lower density fruit (like berries), and then add a dash of monounsatureted fat (foods like olive oil, almonds and avocado).

  4. Anon

    Keep up the great work. A good visual is a deck of cards or your meat portion should be able to fit within the palm of your hand. Half a walnut or the size of your thumb is a good visual for 1 tablespoon. I hope that I can get more benefit from this topic. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Anon

    One thing I’ve never liked is how serving size is a completely arbitrary and ridiculous number dictated by a food company. It really is up to the individual to keep portion control in mind.

  6. Gad_A

    Hello All,
    The ingredients of the portion should take into account the Food Guide Pyramid that suggests the optimal nutrition guidelines for each food category, per day.
    The amount depends also on the individual body structure, daily physical activity and so on.

  7. Dr Tom Halton

    Great Post,
    The serving sizes on food labels and be a lot smaller than you think. Many times a “single serving” package has 2, 3 or even 4 servings listed on the food label. I always have my weight loss clients look at the “Number Of Servings In Package” column before looking at the other nutrition info.

  8. Spectra

    Don’t forget to consider the thickness of meat/protein when measuring it. I’ll eat a fillet of tilapia for dinner and it’s about the size of my whole hand, but it’s very thin. It’s only 3 oz., so it’s one serving. I never measure my veggie servings, though–to me, those are “free” calories. I just measure everything else so I don’t get too many carbs, etc.

  9. TopDietFoods

    I mean don’t stick too strictly to any formula, but listen to your body

  10. TopDietFoods

    i agree that the portion size much depends on each person’s demand

  11. Ann

    You know what I’ve always wondered about on this front … what about the fact that so many foods fit into multiple categories? For instance, you mentioned above that beans should fall into protein, so that would go with the deck of cards rule. But a serving of pinto beans is higher in carbs than it is in protein. So should that follow the carb rule, or should you consider a serving of beans that is the size of a deck of cards plus a cupcake liner to be one serving of protein and one serving of carbs – though the ratio isn’t 50-50?