Serving Size, Portion Size and Hand Measurements

The terms “portion” and “serving” are often used interchangeably, but they do not mean the same thing.

Serving Size:

A serving size is a measured amount of food that is listed on a packaged product’s Nutrition Facts Label. It is usually the average amount of food that should be consumed by healthy people on one eating occasion. All of the nutritional values seen on the label are for the serving size that the manufacturer suggests on the package. It is a standardised amount of food and is used to quantify and give general dietary guidance, on the recommended amounts that can be eaten by an individual per serving. The serving size is a quick way of letting you know the calories and nutrients in a certain amount of food. It could be more or less than the portion that you should actually be eating. 

The presentation of nutrition information on a serving size basis is a strategy that has been adopted by several countries, to promote healthy eating. Although this could potentially help the understanding and correct estimation of serving sizes, it does not facilitate the use of this information for the promotion of healthy eating. This is because the food industry always caters to consumer needs and satisfaction, not consumer health. Studies indicate that food companies may be varying serving sizes as a marketing strategy to stimulate their sales. Many vary their serving sizes, especially of unhealthy foods. This is alarming when the higher energy density food products tend to report smaller serving sizes than the reference size. It misleads the consumer who may end up over-consuming the high energy density foods without being aware of doing so.  Therefore, it is important to build an awareness of our individual portion requirements. 

Portion Size:

A portion size is the actual amount of food/drink a person serves into his/her plate, bowl, glass or cup. Portions are determined upon our specific level of hunger and how much an individual chooses to eat in 1 meal. It reflects either your own choice or the choice of the person who has served you. How much portion one wants to eat varies from person to person. It may or may not be the same as the serving sizes on food labels. An ideal portion size need not be the same for all. 

A lot of time people look at just the serving size on the package and assume they are eating good. However, they need to actually take into account what is the portion size they are serving themselves. Most of the time we end up serving ourselves more than the mentioned serving size. In such cases we need to multiply by 2, 3, 4 or sometimes even more times the calories mentioned per serving size on the package.

Portion sizes of foods and beverages available at restaurants, fast-food outlets, and convenience stores have sharply increased. Over the years our portion size has gotten bigger and bigger. “Portion distortion,” has been the recent tendency to see a larger portion as normal and desirable. With obesity and metabolic syndromes being on the rise, it is important to practise moderation when eating. Being mindful of our portion sizes helps us to include a variety of foods that can be part of our  healthy diet. Instead of thinking about foods as good or bad, we can think of a few foods as ‘sometimes food’, which is to be enjoyed in smaller portions.

Your Hand to Your Rescue:

It can sometimes be difficult to know what an individual’s healthy portion is. Nevertheless, we need to be aware and conscious of whether the portions served and consumed by us are what our body actually requires. Since, it may not always be practically possible to weigh and measure everything we eat, the size of our hands can come handy for measuring approximate healthy portions. Your hand is proportionate to your body, and its size changes only during the growth phase. It is always with you, making it the perfect tool for measuring food and nutrients and minimal counting is required. Quick-hand measures: your fist, palms, thumbs , 1 cupped handful and 2 hands cupped together are all an easy way to help judge your approximate portion size. It can also help to alleviate malnourishment issues caused either by over or under intake of certain foods.

Examples of Using Your Hands to Measure Individual Portion Sizes of different Food Groups in a Meal: 

a. A cupped hand serving size of carbs,

b. A fist size serving of vegetables and fruits,

c. A palm size serving of protein,

d. The edge of a thumb size serving of fats, etc.

Each individual is different. It is important to understand that an individuals appropriate portion size also depends on their age, weight, body type, sex, activity level and medical conditions if any. 

You may need more quantities of certain food groups if you:

  • Are larger in stature 
  • Aren’t feeling satisfied at meals 
  • Eat less frequently throughout the day 
  • Are very active 
  • Are trying to gain muscle
  • Aren’t getting muscle-gain results  

You may need lesser quantities of certain food groups if you:

  • Are smaller in stature
  • Are feeling too full at meals
  • Eat more frequently throughout the day
  • Are not very active
  • Are trying to lose weight
  • Aren’t getting weight-loss results
  • Need to avoid certain foods due to underlying medical conditions

Hand portions are the minimum amounts one needs to eat for optimum health. However, you can customise and add to cater as per an individual’s personal needs and goals. A registered dietician or a nutritionist can help in making customised meal plans and guiding the individual as per his/her goal plans. Always pay attention to results and adjust accordingly.

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