The Cleveland Clinic

Weight Loss:
Controlling How Much You Eat

One of the key ways to maintain a healthy weight is to control your portion sizes. Research has shown that Americans often underestimate how many calories they are consuming each day by as much as 25%

What Does Serving Size Mean?

Use the list below to gain a perspective on how much food a recommended serving size really is; it may be much smaller than you realize.

According to the USDA, 1 serving equals:

  • 1 slice of whole-grain bread
  • 1/2 cup of cooked rice or pasta
  • 1/2 cup of mashed potatoes
  • 3-4 small crackers
  • 1 small pancake or waffle
  • 2 medium-sized cookies
  • 1/2 cup cooked or raw vegetables
  • 1 cup (4 leaves) lettuce
  • 1 small baked potato
  • 3/4 cup vegetable juice
  • 1 medium apple
  • 1/2 grapefruit or mango
  • 1/2 cup berries
  • 1 cup yogurt or milk
  • 1 1/2 ounces of cheddar cheese
  • 1 chicken breast
  • 1 medium pork chop
  • 1/4 pound hamburger patty

A good guideline to help you understand portion sizes is to translate the abstract information represented by the serving size into something visual that's easily remembered. So instead of trying to memorize lists of ounces, cups and tablespoons, simply compare the serving sizes of particular foods to familiar physical objects. For example, a single serving of:

  • Vegetables or fruit is about the size of your fist
  • Pasta is about the size of one scoop of ice cream
  • Meat, fish or poultry is the size of a deck of cards or the size of your palm (minus the fingers).
  • Snacks such as pretzels and chips is about the size of a cupped handful
  • Apple is the size of a baseball
  • Potato is the size of a computer mouse
  • Bagel is the size of a hockey puck
  • Pancake is the size of a compact disc
  • Steamed rice is the size of a cupcake wrapper
  • Cheese is the size of a pair of dice or the size of your whole thumb (from the tip to the base)

The best way to determine the amount of food in a given serving is to look at the Nutrition Facts label and measure it out. Although this may not be practical or that much fun, if you are able to take the time, you will soon be able to "eyeball" the amount of food and know whether there is too much or too little.

For example, filling a measuring cup with the proper sized portion of vegetables, rice, etc. and then emptying it onto a plate will help you learn what these serving sizes look like. Take note of how much of the plate is covered; this will help you in the future, even if you only do it once. Simply by having and implementing this knowledge, you will have taken an important step in managing your weight.

Other ways of developing and maintaining proper portion control include:

At home

  • Use smaller dishes at meals.
  • Serve food in the appropriate portion amounts and don't go back for seconds.
  • Put away any leftovers in separate, portion-controlled amounts. Consider freezing the portions you likely won't eat for a while.
  • Never eat out of the bag or carton.
  • Don't keep platters of food on the table; you are more likely to "pick" at it or have a second serving without even realizing it.

At restaurants

  • Ask for half or smaller portions.
  • Eyeball your appropriate portion, set the rest aside, and ask for a doggie bag right away. Servings at many restaurants are often big enough to provide lunch for two days.
  • If you have dessert, share.

At the supermarket

  • Beware of "mini-snacks" -- tiny crackers, cookies, and pretzels. Most people end up eating more than they realize, and the calories add up.
  • Choose foods packaged in individual serving sizes.
  • If you're the type who eats ice cream out of the carton, pick up ice cream sandwiches or other individual size servings.

Reviewed by the Department of Nutrition Therapy at The Cleveland Clinic.

Edited by Charlotte Grayson, MD, WebMD, August 2004.

Portions of this page © The Cleveland Clinic 2000-2004


Last Editorial Review: 7/12/2005