Ask Holly: Is a portion the same as a serving?

Dear Holly: I keep hearing about portion control. What is a portion? Is that the same as a serving?

A serving and a portion can be two different things. The serving size is a standard, recommended amount of a food. For example, adults are recommended to have 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables each day.

A portion is the amount you eat at one time. This may be more than the recommended amount. One restaurant may have a larger portion of orange juice than another, and is likely larger than the recommended 4-ounce serving.

And portion control? We are rather terrible at it in the United States. We are experiencing “portion distortion,” where we are eating much greater amounts of food than needed in one sitting

One factor at work is the size of our dishes. Since the 1960s, the size of a standard dinner plate, bowl and glass has increased greatly. With larger dishes, we are serving ourselves more. We don’t like to have empty spaces on our plate or a glass half-empty! We should ditch our membership to the “clean plate club” and start using our salad plates for dinner.

We also see portion distortion in our recipes. A pie recipe from the Joy of Cooking in the original edition had more slices than today’s recipe.

We also have larger serving utensils. What people serve themselves increases with larger utensils and larger serving bowl. One study looked at one gallon of Chex mix served in a one gallon bowl vs. one gallon of Chex mix served in two half-gallon bowls. Study participants served themselves more than 50 percent more from the larger bowl, and ate it, too!

Beginning with fast food restaurants in the 1970s, portions begin to grow as a way for the restaurant to market themselves as a great value. The bigger the portion of french fries, the greater the value of the meal. This philosophy has expanded to formal sit-down restaurants as well.

Much of our eating behavior is automatic. Even though we may know that portions are way too big, we still eat way too much. We tend to fill our plates and lick them clean. In order to maintain healthy portions, we must first learn what the recommended serving sizes are and then practice actually eating that, and only that, amount.

At home, create your environment to support your goals. Use small dishes and serving utensils in your home. The recommended size dinner plate is 9 to 10 inches across. Eat mindfully, focusing on the food rather than the TV, telephone and computer. Fill half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables.

What’s your question for Holly? Send them to

For more information and to make an appointment to work on your goals, visit Grass Roots Nutrition, LLC owned by Holly Larson, Registered Dietitian. Visit Holly online at and follow her on Facebook at Have a delicious, healthy day!

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