What Do Serving Sizes Even Mean?

August 16, 2019

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“Betcha can’t eat just one!” Remember that phrase?

Apart from the sheer catchiness of Lay’s popular slogan, the potato chip company cleverly captured a prevailing tendency to eat far more than the listed serving size.

This begs the question: What do serving sizes even mean?

According to the National Institute on Aging, a serving size represents a standard quantity of a given food. It’s designed to help you compare items and choose foods based on nutrition label information. In other words, a serving size is not meant as a recommendation of how much you should consume.

The back of the Lay’s bag indicates a serving size of 1 ounce, or about 15 chips. This simply tells you that the calories, fat, sodium, and other nutritional quantities listed on the label reflect what is in one ounce of chips. If you eat more than 15 potato chips, you’re taking in more than what’s listed, which requires a bit more math if you’re curious to know what you actually consumed.

Now, here’s where the notion of serving sizes can get tricky. Organizations like the American Heart Association have their own guidelines on recommended servings, which can lead people to confuse “serving sizes” with “recommended servings.” People may pick up a pack of chips or cookies and assume that the listed serving size is how much they should be eating, even if it may not be right for them.

Interestingly, with sharp increases in food consumption over the years, food labels are now required to reflect realistic portion sizes, based on what people consume today, which generally means that serving sizes have increased. For example, some items with serving sizes that are a fraction of the total quantity now display one serving size as “one package,” while larger packages often have a dual-column format reflecting both “per serving” and “per package.” While this makes calculating nutrient quantities a little easier, food labels don’t clarify that serving sizes aren’t synonymous with recommended servings.

Perhaps more important, servings are highly bio-individual! Like diet, the same serving size won’t work for everyone. According to the Nutrition Source, the foundation of existing guidelines around recommended servings is shaky, given the influence of food industry lobbying.

So how do you navigate what an appropriate serving size is? Here are five tips:

  1. Consider the serving size simply a calculative indicator of nutrients contained in a given amount.
  2. Remember that the answer to the question “How much should I eat?” is bio-individual. It requires some detective work to figure out what works best for you.
  3. Focus on consuming unprocessed foods and packaged foods with wholesome ingredients. Long lists of ingredients with unrecognizable terms indicate a more processed food. Portion control is important, but food quality has a greater influence on your health overall.
  4. Tune in. Listen to your body and its signals for hunger and fullness, and check in with yourself before skipping meals or deciding to eat when you’re not really hungry.
  5. Practice mindful eating. Take your time, and enjoy each bite by engaging your senses! With time, you’ll notice when you feel satiated without overeating.

Have any tricks that help you determine how much to eat? Share in the comments below!

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