Nutrition-wise blog

Serving sizes: Who decides what a serving is?

By Jennifer K. Nelson, R.D., L.D. and Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. May 13, 2010

A serving is a specific amount of food defined by common measurements, such as cups or tablespoons. It's not the same as a portion, which is the amount you happen to put on your plate. Packaged foods must use standard serving sizes. Standard serving sizes make it easier for shoppers to consider and compare calories and nutrients when choosing foods.

Serving sizes, also known as "reference amounts customarily consumed," were taken from surveys of the average American's eating habits in the 1970s and 1980s. However, these serving sizes don't seem to match up with the way Americans eat today. Maybe they never did — since people notoriously underreport what they've eaten when given food surveys.

The concern that serving sizes are out of step with the way Americans eat has led some to suggest that serving sizes be "normalized" — in other words, upsized — to reflect today's larger appetites. Some experts also suggest that calories appear in large print on the front of packages — not just in small print on the Nutrition Facts panel.

Proponents believe that this approach will serve to shock people into eating less. The sticker shock would be considerable — changing the serving size for premium ice cream from one-half cup to one cup increases the calories from 250 to 500. (My husband can easily polish off two cups in one sitting!)

Others argue that if serving sizes are changed it may send an unintended message — that it's OK to eat more. Also, those bigger serving sizes mean more fat, sugar and salt per serving too.

Do you consider serving size when choosing foods? Or are you unintentionally eating multiple servings and getting more calories than you realize? Do you think upsizing serving sizes will serve the greater good?

-Jennifer

May 13, 2010