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Eating Smart

Puzzled by Serving Sizes? Try This Guide

May 17, 1999|SHELDON MARGEN and DALE A. OGAR | Dr. Sheldon Margen is professor of public health at UC Berkeley; Dale A. Ogar is managing editor of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter. They are the authors of several books, including "The Wellness Encyclopedia of Food and Nutrition."

It has been a number of years now since the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food pyramid made its debut in the campaign to get Americans to eat five fruits and vegetables a day. It's also been a while since mandatory nutrition labels on food were made more user-friendly. And yet, of all the questions we get, one of the most frequent is "What is a serving size?"

The USDA pyramid was originally developed to present consumers with a simplified way to put the Recommended Dietary Allowances into some kind of perspective. Although the RDAs have been a very important research tool, they were never intended to be used by individual consumers. Rather, they were designed for professionals as a way to chart the nutrient needs of an entire population.

As such, they are set so high that they include the needs of about 98% of us--male, female, adults, children, sick, well, pregnant and elderly. By and large, that means anybody eating at the level of the RDAs is getting more than adequate nutrients, and conversely, eating somewhat below the RDAs probably is not really a big deal.

Nutrients are chemical substances that we need, but food is what we eat. When was the last time you went to your favorite restaurant for breakfast and ordered 140 milligrams of vitamin C instead of a 12-ounce glass of orange juice? The pyramid was meant to provide guidelines for suggested daily servings of foods rather than amounts of single nutrients.

But then we get back to the question of what exactly a serving is. If you order a pizza and eat it all, is that one serving of pizza?

The nutrition labels on processed foods define what the manufacturer thinks is a serving so that we can understand the information on the can or package, but these don't really relate to the servings referred to on the USDA pyramid.


So here are the USDA recommendations and the definitions you really need in order to plan a healthy diet:

* Eat six to 11 servings a day of whole grain, enriched breads, cereals and other grain products. One serving is one slice of bread; half a hamburger bun; half an English muffin; a small roll, biscuit or muffin; three to four small crackers; two large crackers; half a cup of cooked cereal, rice or pasta; or 1 ounce of ready-to-eat cereal.

* Eat two to four servings a day of fruits (citrus, melon, berries and other fruits). One serving is a whole fruit such as a medium apple, banana or orange; half a grapefruit; a wedge of melon; three-fourths of a cup of juice; half a cup of berries, half a cup of cooked or canned fruit; or a fourth of a cup of dried fruit.

* Eat three to five servings a day of vegetables (dark green leafy, deep yellow, starchy and other vegetables, and dried beans and peas and legumes). Include a wide variety, but make sure to use dark green leafy vegetables and dried beans and peas several times a week. One serving equals half a cup of cooked vegetables; half a cup of chopped raw vegetables; or 1 cup of leafy raw vegetables such as lettuce or spinach.

* Eat two to three servings a day of protein foods such as meat, poultry, fish, or vegetarian alternatives like eggs, dried beans and peas, nuts and seeds. Try to limit this to the equivalent of about 5 to 7 ounces of cooked lean meat, poultry or fish each day; 1 ounce of meat; one egg; half a cup of cooked beans; 2 tablespoons of peanut butter.

* Consume two servings a day of milk, cheese and yogurt. Try to stick to the low-fat or nonfat varieties. Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding as well as teenagers should get three servings a day. Pregnant or breast-feeding teenagers should increase this to four. One serving is: 1 cup of milk; 8 ounces of yogurt; 1 1/2 ounces of natural cheese; or 2 ounces of processed cheese.

* Fats, oils, sweets and alcoholic beverages should be consumed sparingly.


This final admonition brings up another question about the amount of fat we should eat. We recommend that no more than 30% of your daily calories come from fat, and of those, no more than 10% should be from saturated fat. The standard way to figure that out requires some tricky calculations based on the fact that fat has 9 calories per gram. (To make the calculations easier, just round up fat grams from 9 to 10.)

Fortunately, there is an easier way that is based on the actual number of fat grams you should eat a day, rather than the percentage of calories. Figuring out this number is relatively easy if you are an avid label reader.

Here's how it works. Start out with the normal number of calories you eat in a day and then divide it by 30 (or multiply it by 30%). If you normally eat 1,200 calories a day, you should limit your fat intake to no more than 40 grams of fat. For 1,500 calories, it is 50 grams; for 1,800 calories, 60 grams; for 2,000 calories, 66 grams; and for 2,500 calories, 83 grams. By staying within these guidelines, you will be able to keep to the 30% limit.

Although we highly recommend that on the whole you keep to these guidelines, if by some chance you should find that you have just consumed an entire pizza, don't despair. Try to make sure that the rest of your intake that day or week is relatively low in fat and calories. This balancing act can be carried out over more than a day and even more than a week.

It is what you eat most of the time that will have the biggest effect on your physical health, and we believe that not becoming neurotic over what you can and can't eat will do wonders for your mental health.

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