Four Graphic Examples of Portion Distortion – You’ll be Shocked

One of the most important pieces of information in a nutrition label is the serving size. Many people look at the calorie count, and are happy to see low numbers. But what they don’t notice is that they are consuming twice or more than the stated serving size. Which means twice the calories, twice the fat and sodium, etc.. (but on the bright side – also twice the minerals & vitamins.

There are some funny examples of products with ridiculously small serving sizes, for example “11 chips” for potato chips, or “2 cookies” for Oreos. These don’t make sense, because nobody eats so little. So why are these serving sizes used?

The answer is that a long time ago, the FDA/USDA surveyed consumers and set a “reference amount customarily  consumed” (RACC). The RACC was the amount of food normally consumed per eating occasion by persons four years of age or older.

But what has happened in the past few decades is that our actual RACCs have shot up skyward while the stated RACCs remained static. We can thank supersized meals in fast food establishments as one of the contributors to this phenomena. Without noticing, our expected potion sizes have ballooned. And so have we.

Take a look at the images here, courtesy of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). What do you say? Is it time to super-shrink fast-food?

  • Wet Wolf

    Once again, if people avoid processed, refined foods they portion control issue won’t be such a problem.

    Fresh, natural foods contain more fiber and pulp than refined foods, therefore they contribute to the “fell full” factor moreso than a cookie, cereal or granola bar.

  • WilliamB

    To answer your question: yes!

    I think the reference amount is an excellent illustration of how portion sizes have increased. While 11 chips seems like a small amount, it’s important to be able to compare like-to-like. It’s easier to, say, double everything so it corresponds to package size, than to compare a 1.5 oz bag of chips to a 2.5 oz bag of chips.

    Love those photos!

  • Mary at Mindless

    Sounds like the RACC needs to be adjusted for the 2010 consumer.

    Seeing the 700 calories on the panera sandwich would at least put that amount in the consciousness of the consumer. Maybe we would only eat 1/2 now and 1/2 later.

  • Cathy

    Who in the world would eat a 3 oz. steak?

  • newtaste

    You make it so easy to answer your question when you phrase it with “Who in the world”
    In Mexico, 3 ounces of steak is plenty for 3 steak tacos. In Asian stir-fry three ounces of steak is all you will get in one serving. In Germany, Schnitzel, beef or chicken, is only three or four ounces of meat. Indian Lamb Kebabs and Curries will fall into the same range. Even a big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs only uses three ounces of ground beef per portion.

    • Marnee

      It’s not the meat that’s the problem, anyway.

  • Dr. Pamela Frank, BSc, ND

    Sadly, many people are eating the whole cookie for a morning snack, the whole sandwich for lunch, the whole muffin for afternoon snack and the whole steak for dinner along with a baked potato and sour cream AND breakfast AND sitting for 15 hours per day. It’s a recipe for obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Retailers need to reduce their portion sizes if they want to keep their patrons alive.

    • Inna

      You’re right, Dr. Frank, this is how most of the country eats. Unfortunately, retailers do not care about keeping their patrons alive. Their business is -income- not social work or anything else. Once these companies make a few bucks at the expense of someone’s health, they can move on to the next uneducated chump who is willing to buy/eat their massive amounts of food and often believing it’s a bargain; “Wow, such a big portion for only $9.99! That’s great!”

    • Tara

      You are absolutely wrong. You should be encouraging your patience to take responsibility for themselves rather than encouraging them to expect to be babysat by the corporations. it is up to each individual what he or she puts into his or her body. activity level is also a choice (barring a small minority with a disability which prevents regular exercise). no wonder Americans are out of shape. Their doctors can’t even be honest with them and tell them that they’re fat because of THEIR OWN choices (barring the minority with actual genetic metabolic disorders). You are doing your patients a disservice. I certainly wouldn’t trust you with my heath.

  • Ken

    In Europe, they use a 100g serving size for everything, regardless of package size or what is customarily consumed. It not only lets you compare similar products like one brand of cookies vs another but it lets you compare cookies to icecream to cake on an even basis

    • Marnee

      Because math is hard.

    • Marnee

      Because math is hard.

  • Lee Recca


    Me! Three ounces of steak is just right for me. When I go out to a steakhouse with my friends, they order a 12 oz steak and give me a corner of it. After three ounces of steak, I wonder who will win in the eating battle…me or the cow!

  • allure nobell

    I think the daily protein requirement is 3-4 oz. That’s all the body needs, Anything more just leads to being overweight and a host of other health problems. Also agree with the person who said not to eat processed food. Probably most of the obesity problem comes from eating it. I wouldn’t care so much except that we all have to pay for the health cost of other people’s bad choices with our health insurance (if you can afford to have any).

    • Drt-3d

      I don’t think it is the protein to blame for being overweight and “a host of health problems”.  The real problem is the over-consumption of carbohydrates.  I agree, processed food is not good and it is usually loated with carbs (and fat).

  • Kat

    Actually, they post both kcal/kJ per 100 g and kcal/kJ per serving (serving size and weight) on the products. Serving sizes are also a bit odd at times, too.

  • Carly

    @allure nobell
    This is incorrect. I am a Registered, Licensed Dietitian. The daily requirement of protein is based on weight of the person and the recommendation for a normal, healthy person is about 1g per kg body weight. so for a 160# person this would be about 72 grams. You cannot convert 72 grams protein (weight) from ounces of food(weight) unless you convert each individual food.

    Most serving sizes of meat are 3-4 ounces for 1 SERVING. Not the whole day@

  • Eatz

    There’s a genuine issue here, but the story’s “USDA recommended” language adds a misleading and completely unnecessary spin.

    If you’ve paid any attention to US Nutritional Analysis labeling over the years, you know that new convenience foods with potentially embarassing analysis numbers, and generally JUST those products, choose unnaturally small “portion sizes” as the reference point for their analyses. This is almost a running joke. Some products, in typical _actual_ serving, contain more than (say) the USDA total daily sodium limit, one of the government nutrient recommendations that usually appear. But whatever the USDA studied long ago, it is clearly manufacturers who exploit and support this euphemistic practice. In decades of reading these labels I have never seen one suggest a USDA “recommendation” of the “serving size” used for the analysis — it is clearly just a reference point. Also in those decades, many typical _actual_ servings never changed — another misleading point in this story. I witnessed that people usually ate full hamburgers 40 years ago, and people have always consumed full packages of instant “ramen” noodles and noodle bowls, not the absurd half-package “portion size” that de-emphasizes the product’s huge sodium content.

    What’s more, there is no issue if customers use their heads. Nutritional Analysis labeling gives “portion size” explicitly; if your own portions vary, you can easily scale the analysis numbers accordingly. Yes, the “portion size” labeling is obnoxious commercial euphemism (OCE), but if people are unwilling to read and use their heads a little, blaming USDA is a childish excuse even for what the USDA actually does influence.

    • Wp Rcpt

      My gramp was a truckdriver. He ate manly hamburgers loaded with lettuce,onions, and tomato. No french fries, but it was a real sized hamburger. For dinner it was a diner dtrak, an egg and potatoes. He was a lean, healthy man who died in his late eighties. Gram was a bit stouter, not much.
      Working on the farm (dad) or being a secretary(mom); we ate two hearty meals and the school lunch. None of this ‘five little meals a day’, carry 100 cal snacks in your bag. My kids were raised the same, not big into sports, we like weekend hikes and evening movies. I am beginning to this all of this portion structure is the latest American fad. Healthy food should be the focus, on Saturday, at our game table, I love my Lays,. But I dont live off of them!

  • KAMM

    I agree. The companies are providing enough data to figure it out quite easily; and btw, they are not in the healthcare business, they are trying to make a profit. The bottom line is people need to simply take a moment to think about their choices (and then get a little exercise). I just don’t believe that it’s McDonald’s fault that people are fat – I’ve never seen them force feed those french fries!

  • Beta_t

    I do, thanks to Weight Watchers. Its either 3 ounces or none at all.

  • unstuck

    Muffins are getting out of control! They have more calories than my average, healthy lunch and the “Whole Wheat” Or “Carrot” varieties are touted as healthier choices to donuts and other sugary baked goods

  • Kathryn

    KAMM :
    I agree. The companies are providing enough data to figure it out quite easily; and btw, they are not in the healthcare business, they are trying to make a profit. The bottom line is people need to simply take a moment to think about their choices (and then get a little exercise). I just don’t believe that it’s McDonald’s fault that people are fat – I’ve never seen them force feed those french fries!

    I agree with you KAMM; far too often people try and blame everyone else for their problems. That irresponsible attitude is seeping into food choices as well. “It looked so good! I had to eat it!” or “but it’s so fast and cheap!” even if it is, each person still has the responsibility of deciding what foods they will and will not put into their mouths. Like you said: “I’ve never seen them force feed those french fries!”

  • Sue May

    Some people need some brain supplements to deal with the choice of muffin size. It’s amazing the size of of portions.

  • Kitwench

    No, it isn’t time to shrink fast food.
    It’s time to step up and accept responsibility for your own choices.
    I used to scoff at my skinny galpal who usually ordered the hamburger , small fry and a milk at McDonald’s.
    Then I decided to take my own weight issues in hand and eat the amounts my body actually needed.
    Funny, I eat like she does now, lost 40lbs and kept it off (one year !) and I don’t feel hungry or like I’m starving myself.
    I had a great Thanksgiving, and then went back to normal eating.
    It’s a choice.
    Fast food is supposed to be a treat, not a daily lard intake.
    If you can’t control yourself, stay home.

    • Eric Marcotte, MD

      great comment! This is THE answer to obesity and no one wants to hear it. Congrats on your success!

  • Kitwench


    A person who was eating a normal , healthy portion would eat a 3oz steak, with a small baked potato and some carrots !

  • eva

    I don’t think it’s fair to assume that people who think these systems are ridiculous and should be changed, even if they are overweight, are blaming others for their problems. I’m not so much talking about fast food, since i rarely eat it, but in general, some of the serving sizes on products seem to be trying to deliberately deceive consumers or make it difficult for them to control portion sizes and count calories. which, to me, seems like a bogus marketing strategy. look at how popular those 100 calorie packs and stuff are at stores. a company that made a point of making serving sizes easy to calculate and marketed it properly would make a lot of money.

    it especially bothers me with foods that it would be difficult to measure. a lot of foods have cooked measurements, and i’ve got no desire to eat out of a measuring cup. anything sticky or sauce-y would be impractical to pass through one before eating. I especially hate it when measurements are in metric units that it’s rare to see any type of measuring tool for in the states. what i do like is “servings per package” which is often more helpful. it’s easy to say “okay, that was about half the package, so that’s…” or whatever. serving sizes for items that have a size, such as 36 goldfish or 11 chips, even if those sizes are very small, are also very helpful.

  • Nancy-The Frugal Dietitian

    Thanks for the post:(saw it on your yearly round-up) added link to my blog. This is why if people wrote down everything they ate and actually measured it, even just for a week, it would be an “eye opener”.

  • Anne A

    I would eat a 3 oz. steak—just about the size of my palm….which is the best way to determine the size of protein portion we should eat.

  • Sweetwater Tom

    In addition to the RACCs being outdated, I think our styles of eating have changed. We used to have chips as a side with a sandwich or something, but now we eat a whole bag while watching TV.

    Sweetwater Tom

  • Papagayita

    I have to weigh in with my experiences–I’m American, brought up eating healthily, raised on an organic farm but eat out fairly often. My family and I always split entrées, sandwiches, etc. To me 2 oreo cookies is a serving, 3 ounces of steak is plenty. Occasionally I will eat an entire entrée but usually end up being uncomfortably full afterwards. Most of my friends, colleagues, acquaintances feel the same.

  • caracal1788

    In Australia, both the ‘serving size’ and the ‘per 100g’ numbers are recorded, so it’s not really hard to work out what you’re getting.

  • Ros Astaire

    I often use similar visuals to show my clients how portion sizes have changed over the past 20 years. It is amazing how portions have grown over the years and we just aren’t aware! Most of us have lost touch and eat far too much.

  • Roscobunny

    When was the last time you saw a steak at any fast food joint? If you have, it most likely was not more than three ounces. They are cheap that way by restricting portioning. AND not for dietary B.S., they do it to get more profit.
    The key to the recommended daily allowance, is RECOMMENDED! It is not a law, nor something if violated will cause revocation of your birthday, it is a suggestion of common sense.
    I know people that follow weight watch & jenny craig, and all that and do not lose an ounce. I also know people, [myself included], that can wolf down a whole large godfathers pizza and not worry about calories, carbs., and all that other worrisome crap.
    It all depends on the person[s] involved, and not how much of a silly cookie you should eat opposed to how much you do eat. Portion distortion my 38″ butt!

    • Robinolson2008

      I was like you and never worried about the “crap” I was active and ate what ever I liked when ever how ever much I wanted. Then I hurt my leg and could not be as active. That was 3 years ago and I heard from my doctor last week that I am pre diabetes. In the last week I have read everything I can about fat and and salt and am back to exercising everyday. So you may someday change your tune and care about that “crap” cause yes, it might revocation of your birthday as in death.

      • Drt-3d

        Instead of reading about fat, as a prediabetic you are better off reading about carbs… Just a suggestion…

  • cole-cat

    I understand personal responsiblity in food choices. I read labels. I’m in very good health for my age; due, in part to self-control. However, in light of Michelle O’s “fight” against childhood obesity, I can’t help wonder why Michelle O isn’t after the Obama administration/FDA to end the intentional deception on food labels? It’s not just adults who are misled; it’s the youngsters as well.

  • Ann

     Who eats more than 2 oreos? 2 is a reasonable serving, not everyone binges on them.

    • Crystal

      I’m glad someone else thinks this too. If I eat more than two I start to not feel so well. Way too much sugar!

    • Tara

      I agree. Two or three (max) is all you really need… After I’ve eaten 3 oreos, the craving is satisfied and I’m actual sick of them.

  • Ann

     Actually that was the one thing WW was good for — showing you a proper portion.

  • Mjarens

     Good article.  Kind of grossed me out when I saw one of the examples:  Smoked Ham & Swiss Sandwich @ Panera.  I eat lunch at Panera once a week.  Now that restaurants must provide calories per serving, I can eat a satisfying, healthy lunch for under 450 calories:  a cup of Black Bean soup, and half of the Asian Chicken Salad, with water to drink, and no dessert.  Or go to Taco Time and order the regular Beef Taco Salad – under 300 calories, and plenty filling.  Eat out healthy has become a fun pass time for me.  But then, I only dine out once or twice a week.  We prepare most meals at home, from whole ingredients.

  • Janey102482

    I don’t think this is distorted at all.  It’s called not being a pig (to put it rather bluntly!)  I am glad that manufacturers use halfway sensible portion sizes on their labels.  That way, people who want to eat a smaller portion in the name of health will be able to figure it out quickly.  I made a change to my own eating habits recently and a big part of that was realizing that “normal” portion sizes are anything but.  All three of the portion sizes listed here are exactly right for me and probably most other people looking to lose weight or stay healthy.

    • Sondra Thompson

      Sizes are completely distorted….when you eat out the portion served is usually enough for 2-3 meals.   We are surrounded by larger images, commercials glamorizing junk food, “all you can eat” everywhere…..basically everywhere we turn it is a hidden message saying “more is better”.   Yes we should take responsibility and think before eating but let’s face it, this decision usually comes after we start to notice weight gain/sluggishness/etc.   that we start to read up and learn the healthy way.  

      Being healthy is a quest as there are so many resources that are misleading i.e no carb, cabbage diet, atkins, low fat/no fat diets, “medically supervised” starvation diets, and on and on.   Many times people fall victim to “health” scams before discovery proper portion control and getting the majority of your calories from simple natural un-refined foods………..I know because as a former overweight child, teenager with eating disorder, a young adult that struggled with weight issues for years, as motivated and determined as I was and continue to be the progress took tons of trainers, misleading information, and self discovery before the light bulb clicked.

      My point is that it is time that education in proper health & fitness is spread throughout the nation.  This way people will then truly have the CHOICE to make the right decisions.   Without the knowledge there is no making the right choices.  ~S

  • Veronica

    We drove through a local custard shop for a rare treat last night.  I was driving so ordered a single scoop cone for myself and a short (small) shake for my husband.  He is so used to ordering everything large or larger that he was sure a small wouldn’t be nearly enough.  We sure condition ourselves to a way of thinking.  PS – he was pretty satisfied with the small.  :)

  • Ottowash

    I think the label should say what’s in the whole package in one big fat number, not some arbitrary serving size.
    Lays Balsamic Sweet Onion potato chips would be:
    Package (283.5g): 1,600 calories.
    Can you honestly sit down with a bag of Lays and not finish at least half the bag? When I was a junk foody I could easily finish the bag and move onto some cookie dough ice cream. Too much makes me sick now.

  • Lthomas521

    If you ate the food that your body was designed to handle, you could eat to your heart’s content and still stay skinny. That means a low-fat (<10% of calories), high-fiber, high-carbohydrate diet. It's easy to fatten on a fatty diet. It's hard to fatten on starch. The body resists converting starch to fat; and when it does so, it wastes about 30% of the calories in the process. That's why populations that eat a starchy diet are so amazingly thin.

    • Drt-3d

      I completely disagree :)   I lost a lot of weight eating 65% fat, 15% carbs (still do…. and feel great!)

  • Kss Kylie

    Hahahahah! That unicorn is soooo funny!! XD

  • Marydarkshard

    XD hahaha kylie stop tht this is great to see your commentes on a computer beside you but srsly stop the ppl ae gonna get p.o’ed XD yes tht unicorn was really funny

  • Atripp

    When visiting Scotland I also noticed another difference from the states: the size of their cold cereal/cookie aisle was about 1/3 of ours. We tend to eat so much simple carbs its no surprise to me that diabetes is running rampant in this country.

  • Franciszelidon

    IIts tiMe to make america heathly the portion size have become crazy 1 small bag of potatoe ships contain 260 calories really!!!!260 dry no protein no vitamins calories!!! CANT THEY MAKE HEALTHIER FOODS AND SNACKS!!!!!!THEY ARE TRYING TO KILL US!!!!!!!!!!

  • Franciszelidon

    Why cant there be healthy foods at supermarkets!!!!:’(why are food corporations trying to kill us!?!!:’(

  • Ann Korn

    They had large muffins at DD 35 years ago. I used to cut them in have for breakfast and and two meals. I loved the bran with raisins, the best muffins I ever had. They don’t make them the same way anymore, I think they cut the goodness out to save money.