Whose serving size?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

August 2011

Serving size has become a hot topic these days as the nation struggles with obesity and diabetes, major factors in the meltdown of healthcare financing. One proposed solution is for food manufacturers to make changes in their package labels so that consumers will know exactly how many servings they are getting in that container of ready-to-eat soup or bag of chips.

The food-watchers (a gentler term than food police) have their hearts in the right place. Americans do eat too much and exercise too little but it will take an enormous educational effort to reverse those trends. Not much will change until nutritionists and the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) give up their traditional but ill-fitting definitions of a "serving."

Scientists need to have standards when they propose drug dosage, for instance. The standard male (154 pounds) weighs considerably more than the standard small female (95 pounds) but a lot less than a NFL linebacker (250 pounds or more) and it's obvious that an appropriate dose of a drug for the footballer would be too much for the woman. The same principle applies to food.

A standard serving of steak is 3 ½ ounces according to nutritonists but that's about one-third the size of even a small T-bone in most restaurants. Portion-control advocates suggest that a serving of meat or fish should be the size of one's palm, minus the fingers. In our examples above, the lady and the linebacker would get his or her appropriately-sized portion.

A one-cup serving of cooked pasta is about the size of an average fist, a paltry amount compared with the 18-ounce mound of spaghetti that your local pizza parlor sets before you. Cooked vegetables, rice and fruit also call for a fist-sized serving. Two fists of leafy green salads or uncooked vegetables are appropriate. Use one handful for nuts and two handfuls for chips and popcorn. A portion of cheese should be about the size of one's thumb.

You're thinking: "This is a starvation diet!" It's not if you include at least two servings of vegetables and one serving of fruit at each meal. Add a couple of snacks between meals. A thumb-sized helping of peanut butter on a couple of crackers, a piece of fruit or a handful of nuts will stave off hunger pangs.

And you can still enjoy a serving of red wine (5 ounces) and an ounce of dark chocolate.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.