The serving size experiment

Back in the semi-awkward period of self discovery that happened immediately after college graduation, I started running long distances. This culminated in eventually running marathons, and as part of my training, I got very focused on nutrition. When training for a marathon, you obviously need to take in more calories than you would normally, but I was cautioned that it’s actually very common for marathoners to gain weight because they overeat thinking they’ll burn it all off. As such, I got big into calorie counting, and in order to count your calories, you have to recommended serving sizes (or multiples of recommended serving sizes) to keep an accurate count. And for the first time, I really started to pay attention to portion size as it applies to what you “should” eat.

The Serving Size Experiment

When I scaled back my running to a more manageable level, I also had to scale back my eating habits, and having a good sense of portioning helped me do that. This October was the five-year mark of my crossing the finish line of my first marathon, and it was a moment to reflect on everything that’s happened in the five years since. As such, I thought it’d be an interesting throw back to go back to that serving size hyper attention for one day, and eat the way the labels say I “should” eat for one, normal day. I did not change what I would normally eat drastically, instead choosing to limit what I ate only by the recommended serving size specified on the nutritional label. I also wasn’t paying a lot of attention to calories, though I did keep track of them out of casual curiosity to see how eating by serving size would stack up to the 2000 calorie daily recommendation (also specified on the nutrition label).

So here’s how the day broke down, along with how I felt about the meals with the portions recommended. Foods selected and activity levels are pretty typical of my average weekend day.

1 decaf Starbucks K-cup, 1 tbsp pumpkin spice creamer (30 calories total)

A tablespoon of creamer is not a lot in a twelve ounce cup of coffee, and I knew as soon as I stirred the mug and saw the color of the coffee that it wasn’t going to be enough! This made me wonder how many “servings” of creamer I was actually putting in my morning cup of joe. I still feel like it’s “one.” One serving of creamer should be however much creamer it takes to make your coffee palatable!

2 gluten free frozen waffles, 1 tbsp butter, 1/4 cup syrup (500 calories total)

I love toaster waffles, and two is the perfect breakfast. Unlike the coffee creamer, however, I quickly realized that a tbsp of butter was more than I would normally use, and a 1/4 cup of syrup is absurd! My plate was drowning in syrup. It was altogether too much, and my waffles were overly sweet to the point I almost couldn’t eat them. A bulk of the calories in this meal came from the butter and syrup, so scaling these back is also a great way to cut calories if that’s your ultimate goal!

1 bottle of G2 (50 calories)

I drank a bottle of Gatorade while out on the golf course walking 9 holes. One bottle is a serving, and it’s all I needed.

1 cup homemade soup topped with 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, 1 Apple (350 calories total)

A cup of soup is not a lot! In a normal can of soup there are two servings, but is anyone really not eating the whole can of soup? Nevertheless, I scooped out just one cup and topped it, like I normally would, with shaved parmesan cheese. A serving of cheese, however, is a 1/4 cup, so the ratio of cheese to soup was completely out of whack. Cheese is also high calorie, so it would have been really easy to trade less cheese for more soup, not add calories, and feel like the meal was much heartier. I ate this meal, but was hungry about an hour later, so ate…

1 Nature Valley granola bar (140 calories)

…before my workout, which ended up being a one hour cycling session. Nobody’s eating more than one granola bar at a time, right? One is good enough!

1 banana, 2 tbs peanut butter, 1 gluten free Oreo (350 calories total)

After my workout, it was time for a snack. I love a banana and peanut butter for some potassium and protein, but two tablespoons of peanut butter was a lot…too much for my banana. I thought I’d scoop the rest onto an Oreo, but still had some left over. I actually didn’t finish all the peanut butter…couldn’t do it!

4 oz pork chop, 1/2 cup curry quinoa, 1/2 cup roasted broccoli (475 calories total)

Want to know what I wished I had more of in this meal? The broccoli! It was delicious, simply roasted in the oven, and a serving was only 1/2 cup. My husband kept telling me to just squish more into the measuring cup, and let’s be honest, at only 25 calories a serving, no one is gaining weight from broccoli! Most people overeat on portions of meat, so if you’re paying attention to serving sizes, meat is probably the one that shocks people the most. I cut an 8 ounce pork chop in half to get roughly 4 ounces, but the USDA actually defines a serving of pork as 2-3 ounces. Now you know!

1/2 cup vanilla ice cream, 2 pieces assorted crushed Halloween candy bars (450 calories)

Like meat, ice cream is another food that people often pay zero attention to the serving size. I may be an enigma in this regard. I can easily turn a pint of Ben and Jerry’s into the four recommended servings. No problem. So a half cup of ice cream was not a problem for me, and I topped it with some crushed up Halloween candy (on serving was two pieces which had fewer calories than the ice cream!) to make a little sundae. Delicious, and indulgent, and really all the sweets I needed.

Grand calorie total for the day: 2,345…slightly higher than the daily 2000 that the nutrition label gives as its “average” guide. Out of curiosity, I looked at a variety of online calorie calculators that account for your height, weight, and activity level to give you a more tailored calorie number for your lifestyle. has a decent one. My maintenance number was 2344…so pretty much spot on with my diet, but some of those calories came from the “extras,” syrup…peanut butter…butter…and they’d be really easy to cut back, or swap out for healthier choices!

Would I recommend this kind of eating? Maybe as an awareness exercise, but not as hard-core dieting. It’s good to know what you’re eating, and how much you’re supposed to eat, but it’s also proven that occasional indulgences and cheat days can be very productive in the longevity of healthy eating habits and weight maintenance, so know your body, and listen to your body for what it needs. Also, be aware that a serving isn’t always what you need in a serving! I’ll probably never eat a full serving of syrup again!

If you’re interested in more portion research, and a really interesting look at where calories and energy come from, check out Eat This, Not That an insiders look at the best and worst foods to eat at fast food restaurants, as well as healthy snacks and meal ideas to swap into your daily diet!

Bon appetit, and as always, cheers!

Published by Kate

A former Wisconsinite, Kate now resides in southeast Minnesota with her husband where she teaches high school English and theater. She recently completed her master's degree in learning design and technology, and continues to study and advocate for arts integration in the classroom. A recipient of the RISE America grant for high school theater, Kate is working to innovate and expand theater opportunities for the students at PIHS. An avid distance runner, concert pianist, and want-to-be wine aficionado, Kate's blog "ink." is a passion project, embodying all the best parts of life: friends, food, wine, thoughtful conversation, style, and sass!

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