Serving size is a big “portion” of the nutrition puzzle.
As a kid, you probably dunked Oreo after Oreo into milk after school. Polishing off a sleeve was no trouble at all, and you ended your Oreo sesh feeling satisfied, carefree, and ready to watch a repeat of Arthur. Or, you know, practice your spelling words.
As an adult, you’ve probably become more careful about what you put in your body. You may still dabble in the occasional multi-Oreo sesh, but now you flip that package around to assess the nutrition situation. When you do, you discover that—oh no—one serving is just two cookies, and that you’ve been eating four or five servings at a time.
If you felt indignant, you’re not alone. Portion sizes on packages can be confusing and don’t always make intuitive sense. But as “wrong” as they might feel to consumers, there is actually some logic behind how experts set portion sizes.
Where Do Portion Sizes Come From, Anyway?
“The portion sizes you see on food packages are known as Reference Amounts Customarily Consumed (RACCs),” says Jenn LaVardera, MS, RD, founder and owner of The Hamptons RD.
RACCs are set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) using “national food consumption surveys to determine the average amount of a specific food typically consumed in one eating occasion,” says LaVardera.
That’s where things get wonky. “The data used to create RACCs were from surveys from the 1970s and 80s, and Americans on average are currently eating more of certain foods,” explains LaVardera. For this reason, some portion suggestions have recently been updated. LaVardera gives the example of ice cream, which recently adjusted from 1/2 cup to 2/3 cup.
Foods with Sneaky Portion Sizes
These are just *some* of the foods that commonly fool people with their shockingly small portion sizes.
Oreos: Yep, these afterschool faves are 140 calories—for only two cookies. Oops.
Frosted corn flakes: Most cold cereals only have a RACC of 3/4 a cup. Those mega-sized cereal bowls everyone has in their cupboards hold closer to two cups of cereal. A 3/4-cup serving of frosted corn flakes contains 110 calories.
Granola: This oat-based cereal has a rather undeserved health halo. Not only is granola a high-sugar food, but a portion of granola is *only* 1/4 cup. (Let that sink in.) Each quarter cup contains about 140 calories, although it varies by brand.
Olive oil: It’s oil, so you know it’s a calorie-dense food. It’s also a source of healthy unsaturated fat. But you might not have realized that one portion of oil is only one tablespoon (for 120 calories). Keep that in mind next time you’re drizzling the EVOO on your homemade hummus.
Croutons: These little toasted squares get a bad rap for being the “unhealthy part of the salad.” You might be surprised to learn that the suggested portion contains just 30 calories—which sounds great, until you learn that the RACC is only two tablespoons. Yes, tablespoons. That amounts to two or three croutons.
Cheddar cheese: The 110 calories in a portion of cheese add up fast. How fast? Well, one portion is only 1 ounce, which is equivalent to a pair of dice. #wompwomp
Grilled chicken breast: Dubbed one of the healthiest protein options, grilled chicken breast clocks in at about 110 calories a serving. Sounds like a steal, until you find out one portion is 3 ounces—about the size of a deck of cards. FYI: Most chicken breasts today are two or three times that size. (Find out more about the nutrition of grilled chicken here.)
Frosted toaster pastries: Whether you prefer strawberry or the brown sugar cinnamon flavor, Pop-Tarts have a dark secret: One serving is only one pastry, despite the fact that they come in packs of two. Each one is 200 calories. (Alright, that’s it—someone’s going to get a strongly worded letter.)
Some of these might sound bizarre, but there’s a method to the madness. “Reference amounts are based on the major intended use of the food,” says LaVardera, “so the best portion might be different depending on what else you’re eating.”
Take granola, for example. If you’re eating granola like cereal—just in a bowl with milk—then 1/4 cup will feel like an absolutely pathetic serving. However, granola is usually intended to be sprinkled on yogurt in a parfait with fruit, which makes 1/4 cup seem more reasonable.
Why Do Portion Sizes Matter?
If RACCs aren’t actually recommendations by nutrition experts, then is there actually a point in paying attention to them?
Well, yes. Regardless of whether you stick to the suggested portion size or not, all of the nutritional content listed on the label—the calories, fat, fiber, and vitamins—is all based on the portion size. So if you decide to eat three portions of granola (which you’re totally allowed to do), you need to remember that you’re getting three times the amount of calories.
“Portion sizes should be used as a guideline, but they aren’t set in stone,” says LaVardera. For example, athletes or active teens might need larger servings than the average person. “When figuring out what’s best for you, start with the portion recommended on the package and pay attention to your hunger.” (Check out how to use the hunger scale to be more in touch with your hunger cues.)
Border, sharp cheddar cheese, sharp cheddar. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Accessed on August 21, 2018 at https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/45033339.)
Boulder granola, original granola. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Accessed on August 21, 2018 at https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/45169656.)
Chicken, broilers or fryers, breast, meat and skin, raw. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Accessed on August 21, 2018 at https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/05057.)
Croutons. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Accessed on August 21, 2018 at https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/45331058.)
Frosted strawberry toaster pastries. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Accessed on August 21, 2018 at https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/45356353.)
Grilled chicken breasts. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Accessed on August 21, 2018 at https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/45345070.)
Kellogg’s, Frosted Flakes, frosted corn flake cereal. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Accessed on August 21, 2018 at https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/45295564.)
Olive oil. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Accessed on August 21, 2018 at https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/45353784.)
Oreo chocolate sandwich cookies. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Accessed on August 21, 2018 at https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/45260051.)