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The Difference between Serving and Portion Size

We’re told by nutritionist and dieticians to “watch our portions,” but we’re also told to get enough servings of this or that food group. It can be hard to make sense of both recommendations—we have to get the right number of calories and nutrients, but from the right sources and in the right proportions. The terms “serving” and “portion” can be confusing, too.

A portion is the amount of food from a particular food group you consume.1 For example, when you eat a hamburger with a quarter pounder patty inside, you’re eating a four ounce portion of meat.

However, one serving of meat is three ounces.2 A serving is the amount of food from a food group used in nutritional recommendations. For example, less than two servings of lean meat per day are recommended for an adult.3

This means that a single portion of food may contain more than one serving of a particular food group (the quarter pounder contains one portion of meat but more than one serving). And, since portion sizes have grown in the past twenty years, it can be difficult to know whether, for example, a single bagel is one or more serving of grains (chances are, it’s more than one).4

Want to know how much of each food group you should eat each day? Check out choosemyplate.gov for serving recommendations for adults and children.


  1. “Portion Size Versus Serving Size,” American Heart Association, March 25, 2015, http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/HealthierKids/HowtoMakeaHealthyHome/Portion-Size-Versus-Serving-Size_UCM_304051_Article.jsp#.Vnli2fkrLRY
  2. Nicole C. Argo and Wendy J. Dahl, Facts about Protein, FSHN15-01, Gainesville: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, 2015, https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fs261
  3. “All about the Protein Foods Group,” choosemyplate.gov, August 19, 2015, http://www.choosemyplate.gov/protein-foods
  4. “Serving Sizes and Portions,” National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, September 30, 2013, https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/wecan/eat-right/distortion.htm

Photo credits: Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS