How Many Servings From Each Food Group Should You Be Eating?
Between Big Gulps, foot-long subs, and trenta-sized lattes (31 ounces!), food serving sizes have grown exponentially. The standard plate size has grown from 9.6 inches to 11.8 inches since 1900, and we have done our best to fill them.
Food manufacturers can add to the confusion, explains Sara Ryba, R.D., C.D.N., an Openfit Nutrition Expert. “A candy bar serving size could be 450 calories, which a lot of calories to waste on junk food, but if the candy bar is labeled as 1 serving, at least the message of what you are about to ingest is clear,” she says. “Unfortunately, manufacturers have the right to determine how many servings to print on the label, and you may easily be mislead into thinking that your 450 calorie candy bar only had 150 calories if the label said that there was 3 servings per bar.”
So, if food serving sizes are not regulated in a standard way, how can you tell how much you’re really eating, and how much should you be eating every day?
According to the FDA, that information isn’t exactly clear on food labels: “The serving sizes listed on the Nutrition Facts label are not recommended serving sizes. By law, serving sizes must be based on how much food people actually consume, and not on what they should eat.”
All clear now? Didn’t think so. We’re here to help.
How Much Food Should I Eat Each Meal?
Subjectively, we should eat until we are satiated, but not “full,” says Ryba, who acknowledges that doesn’t easily translate to food servings, especially for novice dieters.
To help, the USDA created MyPlate, a replacement for the Food Pyramid of the 1990s and early 2000s. MyPlate has a Checklist Calculator that will help you determine how many servings of each food group should consumed in order to meet your specific calorie goals.
“MyPlate is great because it shows you how to create a plate with half of it full of fruits and vegetables, and the other half split between grains and proteins, but it still doesn’t take into account the body weight of the individual,” Paige Benté, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D. “This is an important factor in determining proper portion control.”
According to MyPlate, here’s what a day’s nutrition for an adult following a 2,000 calorie diet might look like. (Note: This list of food servings is directed at people who want to eat healthfully. It has nothing to do with weight loss or gain. This list will vary greatly based on individual variables such as height, weight and activity levels.)
- 2 cups of fruit
- 2.5 cups of vegetables
- 6 ounces of grains
- 5.5 ounces of protein
- 3 cups of dairy
When spread out over the course of three meals, these food serving sizes could look something like this (keep reading for specific serving examples of fruit, vegetables, and protein):
- 1 scrambled egg
- 1 whole grain english muffin
- 8 large strawberries
- 1 cup of milk
- 2 ounces of salmon
- 1 cup of brown rice
- 1/2 bell pepper cut into strips
- 1 cup of yogurt
- 1 medium orange
- 3 ounces of chicken breast
- 1 cup of quinoa
- 1 cup of steamed broccoli
- 1 garden salad, approximately 2 cups
- 1 cup of milk
What is a Serving Size of Fruit?
According to MyPlate, an average person should consume 1-2 cups of fruit per day. These needs vary based on age, sex, and level of physical activity. By “cup,” MyPlate means a cup of fruit (fresh or flash-frozen without added sugar is optimal), a cup of 100% fruit juice, or 1/2 cup of dried fruit.
If you choose the fresh fruit option, Ryba says here’s what a cup might look like:
- 1 small apple
- 1 medium grapefuit or pear
- 30 grapes
- 8 large strawberries
- 1 cup of chopped melon, such as cantaloupe or watermelon
Just remember that these servings vary based on the size of the fruit. A serving size will be less if you have a large apple, and more if you purchased smaller strawberries or grapes.
What is a Serving Size of Vegetables?
MyPlate recommends 1-2 cups of vegetables per day. Just as with fruits, these needs vary based on age, sex, and level of physical activity. A cup of vegetables is equal to 1 cup of raw or cooked vegetables (again, fresh or flash-frozen is best) or vegetable juice, or 2 cups of raw leafy greens.
Here’s what Ryba says a cup might look like:
- 1 cup chopped broccoli or cauliflower
- 1 large bell pepper
- 2 medium carrots, or 1 cup chopped carrots
- 2 cups uncooked leafy greens
- 1 cup cooked chopped zucchini
Just like fruits, serving size will vary based on the size of the vegetables you buy.
What is a Serving Size of Protein?
With the same variances as fruits and vegetables, MyPlate recommends 2-6.5 ounces of protein every day. Here’s what is considered an ounce of protein:
- 1 ounce of meat, poultry or fish
- ¼ cup cooked beans
- 1 egg
- 1 tablespoon of peanut butter
- ½ ounce of nuts or seeds
When sizing up meat, poultry and fish, a 3-ounce portion is approximately the size of a deck of cards.
To put these serving sizes into perspective, a 3.5 ounce chicken breast contains approximately 24 grams of protein. It’s important to note that we also get protein from vegetables, and even fruits, so “getting more protein” doesn’t necessarily mean eating more meat.
Dairy products like milk, yogurt and cheese can also contain protein.
What is a Serving Size of Dairy?
Noting that needs vary based on age, sex, and level of physical activity, MyPlate recommends 2-3 cups of dairy per day. These “cups” could come in the form of:
- 1 cup of low-fat milk, unsweetened yogurt, or calcium-fortified soymilk (soy beverage)
- 1 ½ ounces of hard cheese, such as cheddar or swiss
- 2 ounces of processed cheese
While dairy serving sizes are fairly consistent, it is important to note the caloric content may vary based on the amount of fat and sugar content each product contains.Similarly, sweetened yogurt will be higher in sugar and in calories than plain unsweetened yogurt. For example, one cup of whole milk contains 150 calories, while a glass of nonfat milk has 80 calories.
What is a Serving Size of Grains?
MyPlate recommends 3-8 ounces of grains (whole grains are preferred, and at least 1/2 of your grains should come in the form of whole grains) per day. That “ounce” could consist of:
- 1 slice of 100% whole wheat bread
- 1 cup of whole-grain ready to eat cereal
- ½ cup of cooked rice, cooked pasta, or cooked cereal
Just like the other food groups, needs vary based on age, sex, and level of physical activity.
How do I Control Portion Sizes?
The first step toward controlling food serving sizes is learning what portions of certain foods look like, Ryba says. So research the portions above. Then, spend some time weighing and measuring different foods so you’ll be able to “eyeball” what those serving sizes look like. Knowing is half the battle. Here are some other things to consider.
Do Food Group Servings Differ for Men and Women?
Body mass is the biggest reason to account for dietary differences between individuals and among genders.
“There’s definitely a difference between a 120-pound female looking to maintain her weight and a 250-pound male who’s trying to bulk up — and as such, they’ll need very different amounts of food,” says Benté.
A good first step is to calculate your caloric baseline to find out how many calories you should eat each day — and weight plays a big role.
Do Food Group Servings Change When You’re Working Out?
Once you’ve calculated your caloric baseline, it’s time to honor all that hard work from your workouts.
“It’s really important to restore the calories you’ve lost after working out,” notes Benté. “If you’re doing really intense workouts, you’ll burn a bunch of calories, and you’ll need to make sure you’re getting enough protein and fat to maintain muscle mass, cellular function, and brain function. And you’ll need enough carbs for energy and to replace muscle glycogen.”
This may be the case for individuals who are looking to build muscle mass; some research studies suggest that optimal protein intake for bodybuilders during periods of intense training may be higher.
What Do I Do if I Eat Too Much?
While it’s only natural to have some days where you may overdo it and eat more than you should, Benté says it’s important to do everything in your power to stick to your nutrition plan.
“Each day is a fresh start, so it’s best to avoid undereating one day and overeating the next — a practice that only sets up a cycle of bad habits.”
However, Ryba says you may be able to fix your slip ups during the day.
According to Ryba, it’s not a good idea to say, “Oh well, I ate poorly at lunch, so I may as well eat whatever I want at dinner and start fresh tomorrow.”
Instead, she recommends saying, “Well, my lunch was a bit heavy, and therefore I am going to have a lighter dinner to balance out my day.”
5 Tips for Controlling Portion Sizes
Now that you know what your food serving sizes should look like each day, and what a serving of some of the foods you’ll encounter will look like, and how to adjust those servings based on your activity, Ryba has a few tips for controlling portion sizes.
- Learn what a serving size is. Bookmark this story, and check out other resources like NIH and USDA to learn the recommended serving sizes of a wide variety of foods.
- Spend a day or two really watching the servings sizes. Take the time to weigh and measure various foods so you know what their respective serving sizes look like.
- Realize that it’s OK to overdo it on some foods, but not others. You can enjoy a smorgasbord of vegetables like lettuce, but make an effort to avoid adding empty calories from sugars and refined carbohydrates.
- Don’t assume that the serving size on the label is the suggested or ‘healthy’ serving size. While 80 calories for a sports drink may not sound so bad, that changes when you realize the bottle your holding contains 2.5 servings for a total of 200 calories.
- Don’t eat out of a ‘family sized’ bag of chips. It’s really easy to keep shoveling from a seemingly never-ending supply of salty treats. Pre-portion your snacks to avoid overindulging.
- Plate Size and Color Suggestibility: The Delboeuf Illusion’s Bias on Serving and Eating Behavior www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/662615?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
- Food Serving Sizes Get a Reality Check www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/food-serving-sizes-get-reality-check
- All About the Fruit Group www.choosemyplate.gov/eathealthy/fruits
- All About the Vegetable Group www.choosemyplate.gov/eathealthy/vegetables
- All about the Protein Foods Group www.choosemyplate.gov/eathealthy/protein-foods
- CHICKEN BREAST fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/507405/nutrients
- All about the Dairy Group www.choosemyplate.gov/eathealthy/dairy
- All about the Grains Group www.choosemyplate.gov/eathealthy/grains
- Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4033492/