Serving Size vs Portion Size & Reading Food Labels


Many of us get confused by serving size and portion size.  We might enjoy a particular snack and then check the nutrition label only to discover that you have eaten two or three servings when you thought you were having one!  This is especially pertinent at this time of year when we all have loads of Christmas parties and functions to attend.

So what’s the difference between Serving Size and Portion Size?

A serving size is a measured amount of food — 1 cup, 1 slice, 1 bag – with a measured amount of macronutrients (carbs, proteins and fats). It’s the amount you’ll see on a food label or within the Australian Dietary guidelines.

A portion size, on the other hand, is the amount of food or drink you actually eat in one go, whether that is a huge steak with mushroom sauce or a single apple. Everyone’s portion size will be different depending on a range of factors including how hungry you are, or how much you want to eat a particular food! The goal is to match your portions to recommended serving sizes.

So this week, I’ve attached a useful worksheet released from the Australian Government, which explains serving size and how to read food labels.  It is really useful for working out what the heck you are looking at when reading food labels and what proportion of macronutrients you should be aiming for when you choose foods.

reading food_labels

I’ve also attached another useful sheet that helps you work out portion size using your hand, without getting out the kitchen scales out each and every time you eat (AHHH!) which can be painful and time-consuming!

Portion control guide infographic

In summary, here’s how it works:

  • Your palm determines your protein
  • Your fist determines your fruit and vegie portions, and two full hands determines a portion of leafy greens.
  • Your cupped full hand determines your carb portions (rice, quinoa, pasta) and the centre of your palm determine carb portions for things like granola and nuts/dried fruit.
  • Your thumb determines your fat portions, including things like cheese.

Use this guide to work out how much to eat, not how much you are served, as often what we may be served in restaurants is way too much than what we should be consuming.

 Some other useful tips on portion sizes

  • Look at your plating and aim for 50% vegies or salad, 25% protein and 25% starchy vegies or carbs
  • We eat with our eyes first, not our tummies, so use smaller plates so they look fuller which tricks us into thinking we are eating more!
  • If you intended to cook more for leftovers, don’t be tempted to go back for seconds once you have loaded up your plate.
  • Don’t feel silly asking for a “doggy bag” at a restaurant and taking home part of your meal if you know it is way too big for what you need.
  • If you have bought or made something in bulk, portion it out into a bowl or bag, rather than eating straight from the packet to avoid overeating.
  • Try to eat mindfully (see Bodyscape’s previous blog on this) and try not to eat with distractions (e.g., TV, reading etc).  When you don’t eat mindfully, you are bound to overeat.
  • If you don’t trust yourself with measuring things out with your hands, it might help to weigh things at the start to get a sense of how much is in a particular portion, and then once you have done this a few times, you will quickly learn how much you should be having.

Being able to understand the difference between servings and portion sizes just by using your hand can be a big help when you’re trying to lose or maintain weight, especially at this time of year!