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This Is The Difference Between A Portion And Serving Size

Athletes don't need to have different portions but the same serving size as the rest of the population.

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When it comes to portion sizes and serving sizes, things get a little confusing, especially when restaurants are involved. Should you be finishing everything on your plate? And do athletes have special guidelines?

Enter Kim Schwabenbauer, RD, CSSD, LDN, the founder, Fuel Your Passion, LLC. We chatted with her to clear up any confusion around the different between portions and servings, what a normal serving size looks like—and why food portions in the US have gotten so out of control.

“Athletes should adhere to the same serving sizes that apply to the rest of the population,” she clarifies. “What they will want to adjust is the number of portions, depending on their body composition goals.”

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Schwabenbauer wants us to remember that a “serving” is the amount of food recommended in materials such as MyPlate. A “portion” is the amount of a food you choose to eat at any one time—which may be more or less than a serving.

She refers to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, here are some common ways to look at serving sizes:

  • 1 teaspoon of margarine is the size of one dice
  • 3 ounces of meat is the size of a deck of cards
  • 1 cup of pasta is the size of a baseball
  • 1½ ounces of cheese is the size of four stacked dice
  • ½ cup of fresh fruit is the size of a tennis ball

When it comes to eating in the US, larger portion sizes have become the norm. “Large package sizes with more than one serving per bag or box, restaurants who want you to feel you’re getting a huge ‘value’ out of your meal and even larger plates, spoons and other glassware have all contributed to larger portion sizes,” she explains. “Because of these changes, we’ve lost track of what a serving size and portion size should be for typical items like cereal in a bowl or a bagel and often times, blamed the food item rather than the portion size for weight gain.”

The good news is, to understand serving sizes and portion sizes, Schwabenbauer says you don’t need to be weighing or measuring your food (though it can help). You can, however, pay attention to the ratio of what is on your plate.

“A few simple ideas of making sure you observe your plate at breakfast lunch and dinner to make sure nutrient-dense foods like vegetables make up the biggest part of the plate for lunch or dinner,” she notes. “A protein serving (i.e. 2-4oz of meat or fish or other meat alternative) should be present at every meal (1/4 of the plate).

She also notes if you are fueling properly during your workout—especially is they are long or intense—you will be less likely to overeat afterward because you won’t feel like you are starving.  During mealtime, she suggests that in order to control portion sizes, you try having a broth based soup or protein filled appetizer before the meal, bagging up correct serving sizes for healthy snacks at the beginning of the week to take along and eating every 2-3 hours to not let hunger get out of control.

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Schwabenbauer notes that it can be overwhelming trying to find information on your own or trying to replicate what a friend may be doing.

“A registered dietitian, specifically a board certified sports dietitian (CSSD), can assist with meal planning, design a unique exercise-fueling plan and tailor all of this to the athlete’s nutritional and lifestyle needs,” she adds. “A little guidance from someone you can trust can go a long way!”