Two bowls of popcorn shot from above

Serving sizes: are recommended portions correct, and do they even matter?

Posted by for Nutrition

Serving sizes on food items can often feel out of touch with what we want, so does it matter if we eat more or less of the recommended portion?

Hands up if you’ve ever whole-bagged a snack, only to look on the back and see that the recommended serving was a quarter of what you ate? It doesn’t even have to be a big snack for the suggested amount to be less than what the average person might consider ‘normal’; despite two chocolate fingers coming in the same foil wrap of a Twirl bar, just one is considered a portion according to the label on the pack.

The same goes for cooking pasta or rice, or spooning out spreads from the jar. Weighing out a ‘perfectly’ served portion tends to leave you with either too much or not enough – never ‘quite right’. That can leave you feeling like you’re doing something wrong, choosing an ‘unhealthy’ option or overeating for simply having what you want. 

That’s the point behind the latest reel from nutrition and strength coach Sohee Lee. In it, she weighs the serving she pours for herself versus the one that’s recommended on the side of the packet. Starting with almonds, which suggest a 28g portion, Lee pours herself a 63g bowl of the snack. Then she moves on to crisps, which also state 28g as a serving. She free pours herself a bowl that weighs 62g. Finally, she goes for a bowl of breakfast cereal. Her ideal bowl weighs 93g. The serving suggestion is 42g.

This isn’t a warning about eating too much, as you may have come across on some fitness influencers pages that compare a free-spooned portion of peanut butter to a measured one. Quite the opposite. Lee writes: “Eating beyond the suggested serving size does not mean there’s anything wrong with you or that you should feel guilty or ashamed for consuming more.”

She continues: “Suggested serving sizes don’t know you. They don’t know your calorie needs, or how much food you prefer to feel satisfied in a meal. And oftentimes, trying to adhere to suggested serving sizes can leave you feeling annoyed and wanting more. Pay attention to your hunger and fullness cues, and make an informed choice for yourself depending on your own nutritional needs and preferences.”

Where do serving sizes come from?

All of which raises the question: if we can just dismiss serving sizes, what’s the point in even having them? “Serving sizes are generally based on how much people typically consume at one time, which is usually obtained from national dietary and health surveys,” dietician Tai Ibitoye tells Stylist. “Usually they are recommended by the food manufacturer and listed on food labels with the nutritional information (such as how many calories and nutrients) per recommended serving size.”

For now, it’s important to know that “they aren’t meant as a recommendation of how much people should actually eat or drink,” Ibitoye says. That’s because what the manufacturers recommend as a ‘serving’ is different from what you deem appropriate as a ‘portion’. “The two are used interchangeably but a portion size is the amount of a food that someone chooses to eat at any one time or sitting which may be similar, more or less than a serving size. The recommended portions for different foods will vary according to an individual’s age, weight, health and other factors,” Ibitoye explains.

Dr Dee Bhakta, a lecturer in health sciences and human nutrition at London Metropolitan University, notes that portion size recommendations are a result of research: “There’s been a lot of work on portion sizes, and that’s been developed into the EatWell guide. That lays out how much carbohydrates we should be having in our diet, for example, and breaks that down into what that looks like for the food on your plate between different meals.” So why do so many brands ignore these in favour of their own, often bizarre, serving suggestions?

“That’s a marketing ploy,” says Dr Bhakta. “It is misleading and confusing when they say an item is low in sugar or calories or so forth, but that’s just because the serving size they recommend is so small and not the whole food.” 

Does this mean we can throw away all recommendations and just eat what we feel we need and want? Ibitoye explains that some guidelines, such as the EatWell information, may be useful as “eating too much or too little of any type of food may increase risk of some health issues.” This NHS tool is designed to help you eat a ‘balanced’ diet. Some of the recommendations include eating five-a-day, having a third of our diet made up of starches such as brown rice and potatoes, and having two portions of fish a week.

For Dr Bhakta, these guides are important for the general population: “Our portion sizes on our plates are too large – on a population level. We do need to think about portion sizes when serving ourselves, but when we’re reading about recommendations on a package we need to be aware of the fact that they are devised by companies.” 

For many people, it may be more beneficial to take the focus off of how many grams of houmous they’re eating and instead look at more simple healthy eating practices. While the EatWell site emphasises that “you do not need to achieve this balance with every meal, but try to get the balance right over a day or even a week”, some still say it’s too prescriptive. 

For example, the British Medical Journal published a paper noting that it’s too complex and tailored to the industry rather than individuals: “But when the who’s who of the food industry were represented on the group, Eat Real Food! was never a likely outcome,” writes the paper’s author, nutritionist Dr Zoe Harcombe. Dr Bhaktra seems to agree with the ‘real food’ message and says that the best way for most to manage that is to eat five or more fruits and vegetables a day, have a good source of protein with meals and fill around half your plate with fibrous foods.

For Ibitoye: “The key thing is for people to have a diet with a variety of foods in amounts that is suitable to them and that can support their health but that they enjoy eating too.”

So, if you’re worried that the back of your crisp packet has just told you that you eat enough for a family of four, don’t panic. But making sure that your portions throughout the day deliver enough and not too much of different macro and micronutrients, you’ll be on the right track. As Lee writes, “Everyone’s calorie needs differ from one person to the next, and even from one day to the next, and your preferences for eating patterns will also be unique to you. Even beyond that, you’re allowed to eat something simply because it’s delicious and nourishes the soul.”

Images: Getty

Share this article

Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).

Recommended by Chloe Gray