The Difference between Portion and Serving Size

One of the best ways to keep calorie intake under control is to learn how to estimate portion size. Most people turn to the nutrition label for guidance on portion size. The nutrition label, however, contains information on the serving size rather than the portion size. Understanding the difference between these two things is key in reaching and maintaining a healthy weight.

What’s the Difference between Serving Size and Portion Size?

A portion size refers to the amount of food on our plate, or the amount we consume. It can be small or big. We decide what our portion size is. Use this guide as a quick reference when estimating portion size.

A serving size is a measured amount of food or drink (e.g. one slice of bread, 2 oz. of cheese). It is indicated on the nutrition label and is based off of the serving size the manufacturer suggests on the package. So, our portion may actually contain several servings. For example, one 20 oz. bottle of soda is usually consumed as one portion. In reality, it contains 2.5 servings because one serving is 8 oz. Therefore, one portion of soda contains several servings.



Simply knowing how many servings we are eating or drinking and the calorie content per serving is what is important to staying within our calorie target. Let’s go over some ways to be more aware of our portion sizes so that we will know how to better estimate and control calorie intake.

What to do.

Avoid eating straight from the box/bag/container.

Measure out one portion of the food or drink and place it in a separate container.Did you know that one serving of peanut butter is only 2 tablespoons? Most people who make a peanut butter sandwich use more than 2 tablespoons. This can be an issue for those who are tracking calories in an effort to lose weight. 

Use Smaller Dishes at Home.

Using smaller dishes and utensils has been shown to reduce portion sizes. This makes sense if we think about it. One cup of vegetables looks like a lot more food when placed on a smaller plate versus a larger plate.

Start out with Smaller Portions on Our Plate.

Start out with a smaller amount of food on our plate and then go back for seconds only if we are hungry. We have a tendency to eat all the food that is on our plate, regardless of how much is there. By starting out with a smaller portion, we will be more aware of how much we are actually eating.

Don’t Place the Serving Dishes on the Table.

Leave serving dishes on a separate table than the one we are eating at. This helps to reduce over-eating. We are less likely to go for seconds (or thirds) if we have to actually get up and walk over to the serving dishes, as compared to when they are right in front of us. This also causes us to stop and think “am I really hungry for more? Or just wanting to eat more because it’s right in front of me?”.

When Dinning Out

Portion sizes at restaurants are over-the-top large! Try ordering an appetizer for the main meal. Appetizers are much closer to the recommended portion size than main entrees are. If we do order a larger meal, ask the server for a box and pack up half of your meal right away. This is also a money saver because we can eat the leftovers for lunch or dinner the next day!

Bottom Line

A portion size refers to the amount of food we actually consume. A serving size is a measured amount of food or drink, as indicated on the nutrition label. By understanding the difference between serving size and portion size, we can better control our calorie intake.  

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