This section of my website used to be dedicated to triathlon training, personal race results and certification reviews, like Turbo Kick. I am expanding it to include more generic health & fitness topics. Also, I talk a lot about "D" -- he's my husband (Dave Liu)!

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Serving Sizes Are Smaller Than You Think

I first paid attention to "serving sizes" when I took the YMCA Principles of Health and Fitness certification as a prerequisite to becoming a group exercise instructor. The Wall Street Journal has a great article today about common misconceptions about portions and serving sizes. People often have trouble losing weight because they're eating a lot more than they realize.

I'll give you an example: grab any box of cereal and take a look at the picture on the front. Chances are, it will be a picture of a bowl of cereal which one would naturally assume represents the recommended serving size. Then, look at the food label (you can visit the FDA backgrounder on food labels if you're not familiar with them) and look at the section where it says "serving size" -- it's somewhere between 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup for most cereals. But my guess is that the picture cereal bowl on the box actually contains 1 cup - 1.5 cups, at least two times the serving size! Also note that the nutritional content on the food label is for the cereal ONLY. You have to factor in extra calories if you add milk. As an aside, I read this article in a magazine about "food stylists", and they said the "milk" in cereal picture is really glue (like Elmer's white glue) because it photographs better.

Reading food labels is helpful, but not when if you're dining out. Restaurants are notorious about serving way too much food, unless you go to an overpriced uppity place that calls 3 artfully placed pieces of lettuce a salad. The article provides some helpful hints about how to approximate how many servings you are eating just by looking at food:

... a three-ounce "serving" of meat, fish or poultry is about the size of a deck of cards. A cup of pasta, worth two food pyramid "servings," is about the size of a fist. A teaspoon of margarine or mayonnaise is the size of a finger tip; a tablespoon is the size of a thumb tip. Use two whole thumbs to measure two ounces of cheese, which qualifies as one "serving." Two tablespoons of peanut butter looks like a ping-pong ball. A half-cup portion of cooked vegetables or a cup of salad greens counts as one government-sanctioned "serving."

When I eat out, I typically order 2 appetizers instead of an entree, and whatever leftovers I can't finish I have wrapped up in a doggy bag - a healthy and cost-effective solution for those who tend to overstuff themselves to avoid wasting food.

One piece of info from the WSJ article I was not aware of, is that "the USDA and the FDA used different methods and survey data when they each determined uniform serving sizes. The result is that serving sizes found on FDA-regulated food labels tend to be larger than serving sizes used in the USDA's food pyramid." I wrote a post about serving sizes last month which contained a link to the USDA Food Guide Pyramind.

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