Essential Guide to Portion Sizes

by MyFitnessPal
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Essential Guide to Portion Sizes

We’ve all been there: after enjoying a quick snack, we check the nutrition label only to learn we’ve just eaten two, three or even four servings when we thought we were having one.

Our food industry tends to double, triple or even supersize servings and restaurants are notorious for putting way more food on a plate than anyone other that an intense athlete should eat, leaving us perpetually over-served. Unfortunately, many of us have visually adjusted to these big serving sizes and are unaware of what an accurate portion looks like.

If we can reprogram our brains to see healthy servings sizes, then maybe we won’t be fooled when it comes to being over-served. This guide — using a medium adult hand as the visual clue — should help.


A serving size is a measured amount of food — 1 cup, 1 slice, 1 bag, etc. — intended to be eaten at one time. It’s the amount you’ll see on a food label, and it’s what the USDA uses in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

A portion size, by contrast, is the amount of food or drink you actually consume in one sitting, whether an entire rack of ribs with all the fixings or a single apple. The goal of this guide is to help you match your portions to recommended serving sizes.

1 cup is the amount that fits in a mounded pile in the palm of a medium adult hand or about the size of a tennis ball. It provides approximately 200 calories and 50 grams of carbohydrates.

Granola is best used as a topping or mixed in with cereal, instead of eaten by the  bowl-full. A little goes a long way. Be careful with the serving sizes on the granola box. It could say 2/3 cup, which is more than twice the recommended amount. See above for what 1/4 cup looks in a medium adult hand: it should just cover the center portion of your palm.

1 serving of dried fruit or nuts is 1/4 cup (40 grams), which fills the center of the palm of a medium adult hand. Similar to granola, it’s best to spread this throughout the day or add it to a flaky cereal or a healthy trail mix. Also, avoid dried fruit that contains added sugar –– it’s best to save those calories.

One medium piece of fresh fruit is about the size of a small fist or 3–4 inches in diameter. Aim for 3–5 servings of fruit per day and since dried fruit is so calorie-dense, opt for fresh first.

A serving of leafy greens is technically 1 cup, but this is one time where we recommend doubling or tripling the portion — 2 cups is about what two medium adult hands can pick up in a single go.

Non-starchy vegetables include broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, asparagus, peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes and onions. 1 cup of chopped, non-starchy vegetables creates a mounded handful in a medium adult hand.

Starchy vegetables like corn, peas, parsnips, potatoes, pumpkin, squash, zucchini and yams are higher in carbohydrates and therefore more calorie-dense –– all the more reason why knowing the portion size is important. As with non-starchy vegetables, a serving of starchy vegetables fits in an average adult hand.

A 3-ounce piece of fish, poultry or meat is about the size of a deck of cards or the whole palm of your hand. Focus on lean proteins such as chicken, turkey, fish, seafood or lean cuts of beef and pork.

A serving of cheese is about the size of your index finger or 4 dice. Most 1 1/2-ounce servings are around 150–165 calories, so a little goes a long way. Adding just a slice or nibble of real cheese to your diet can be a great source of calcium. Cut into slices or shred and add to a salad.

Depending on what variety you buy — skim, reduced-fat or whole — 1 cup of milk provides anywhere from 90–145 calories. In an average-size glass (not a tall and skinny one), 1 cup measures about the size of a small fist.

Use these guides to determine how much to eat, not how much you’re served. Being able to assess servings and the portion sizes you want visually is a big help when you’re trying to lose weight, especially when it’s time to eat out.


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  • Kaiser

    Oh Boy, I’m going hungry. Those portions are way too small for my size.

    • Ky

      No, portions are just too big anymore. It’s one of the main reasons why so many Americans are fat!

      • Krui

        Very true
        I thought the same thing, thinking the portions sound too little for me. But it is very true what you said portions are just too big now. Now we are used to that.

      • CK25

        While it is true portion sizes are too large, it is also true that a larger person (due to fat or muscle) needs to consume more calories. They shouldn’t necessarily increase portions of food, but increase frequency of consumption and number of healthy, diverse portions of food. So you and the original poster are partially correct. If the OP is larger then they are correct in thinking that this isn’t enough food, but also wrong in that they are thinking of it in terms of this one meal needing to fill them up. They should instead stick to portion sizes but add in healthy snacks. Even if they are trying to lose weight, they still need to maintain a healthy calorie balance.

  • Matt Craig

    Would love a printer friendly version that I could take on the run to read.

    • Manon Desrosiers

      Me too! Please make it printable.

    • Nathan Schmidt

      Or build it into the native app as a ‘portion guide’ under the ‘more’ menu prompt? I’d imagine the dev team could do this almost as quickly as having to rewrite exclusive print-css markup.

  • Claudia Guerrero

    Please reconsider your classification of zucchini. It is low in carbs and in calories, an excellent veggie to add volume and flavor to soups and other dishes.

  • Julia

    I wish weight measurements were included.

  • Krystina Davidson

    So part of my problem is that I’m meal prepping, working out, so my appetite is THROUGH THE ROOF!! I try to do proper portioning, but it leaves me still very hungry. Eh…I guess such is life.

    • anddarling1

      Are you adjusting for the calories you burn in your workout? I know I definitely use to forget to do that. Also sounds like you may need to up your protein. But, I’m definitely not a registered dietitian so take it with a grain of salt!

  • Jaclyn Vogel

    Are these recommendations based on cooked or raw? I know that cooking can change the nutrients, including the calories. This especially so with pasta and rice, where water is absorbed after cooking, so the raw amount differs from the cooked amount.

  • Faith Ukwuomah

    What is the healthy recommended intake of brown/red/black rice?

  • CRidenhour

    I definitely need to exercise portion control. I frequently dish out the same portions to myself as I do to my husband, who is twice my size. I read the best way to do this is to eat from a smaller plate.

    • poodlemom8550

      hi I had that problem too. What I did to solve this was I don’t bring the food to the table any more or fix his plate. I put it on the counter nice and pretty and he can get what he wants himself.