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Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, March 29, 2000

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
Nutritionist Joannie Dobbs measures out a plate lunch.

Putting it in

Understanding serving sizes
is the key to successfully
climbing the food pyramid

See it clearly

By Betty Shimabukuro


Sad but true: A 9-year-old girl gained 31 pounds in six weeks, which happened to be the same period of time that her class was studying the Food Pyramid and logging everything they ate.

The child was trying to meet her requirement of six servings from the bread, cereal, rice and pasta group -- but she was counting as a single serving a giant muffin from Costco.

A single muffin that size -- loaded as it is with calories and fat -- would have fulfilled all those servings, and she was trying to eat six a day.

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Yes, the Food Pyramid is a commonsense guide to eating enough without eating too much. It tells you how many servings of each type of food to eat, but the problem is most people don't know how to measure a single serving.

What you see on this page are visual aids for grasping the concept of portion size and making it apply in daily life. It seemed a good way to bring March, National Nutrition Month, to a close.


Our main guide was Joannie Dobbs, a nutritionist with the University of Hawaii who analyzes recipes for the Star-Bulletin and who told us the story of the girl and the muffins.

We gave her a couple of typical plate lunches and other items so she could tell us what we're really getting, compared to what we think we're getting. Dobbs brought along a salad, with the idea that some of the news should be positive.

The International Association of Culinary Professionals, in its quarterly newsletter, Food Forum, says Americans really need to nail down this portion thing, saying, "Oversized portions are not the norm in other countries -- and unlike in the United States, neither are oversized people."

Even when you try really hard -- studying the Food Pyramid and reading nutritional labels -- you can get tripped up.


The label on a typical deli bagel counts the whole bagel as a single serving, but the pyramid considers only 1 ounce of that bagel to be a serving. Eat it all and you're getting four servings. Nothing wrong with that, as long as you keep in mind that you should be eating just six to 11, and adjust the rest of your meals to reflect that.

Serving, portion. Portion, serving. Several servings may make up a single portion. A sandwich may be a portion for one, but it includes two servings of bread, plus additional servings of meat and veggies -- get it?

And remember that not all servings are created equal. A pancake counts as one grain serving, just like a slice of whole wheat bread, but it is not the bread's equal in terms of fiber or whole-grain nutrition.

Gotta watch that, too, especially if you're trying to lose weight.


"Confusing? Absolutely," Food Forum says. "It is understandable that consumers would rather ignore the whole portion conundrum rather than decipher it."

It pays to get your arms around portion control, even if you're on a high-protein diet that's low in carbs, or a high-carb diet that's low in proteins.

Your daily allowance from the food groups may differ from what's spelled out in the Food Pyramid, but knowing how to estimate and add up portions can't hurt as you try to eat the right amounts of the foods your diet requires.

One suggestion is to use visual clues. Measure out a half-cup of rice and judge its size in relation to, say, your fist. That's one serving. Now you know that when you're given a full rice bowl, you've got more than one serving in front of you.

That same half-cup equals a serving of raw vegetables, cooked beans, cereal, pasta or chopped fruit.


Now, we are not the portion police and the point is not that you should forever avoid chicken katsu, if that's what you love. Nutritional good sense is based on proper eating over the long haul. A lapse or an occasional over-indulgence means nothing if on the whole you're doing the right thing.

"Once people grasp the concept that a portion of food -- like those monster fries, biggie burgers, or all-you-can-eat bowls of spaghetti -- is not necessarily one serving, they are able to make informed decisions about food choices that affect their nutritional well-being," Food Forum says.

And that's the point.

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See it clearly

The International Food Information Council suggests these visual aids for judging a single serving:

Bullet Meat (3 ounces): A deck of playing cards
Bullet Cheese (1-1/2 ounces): 6 dice
Bullet Apple/orange (1 medium fruit): A baseball
Bullet Peanut butter (2 tablespoons): A golf ball (peanut butter is in the meat group)


The Food Pyramid sets these calorie guides:

Bullet 1,600: For most women and older adults
Bullet 2,200: Kids, teen girls, active women and most men
Bullet 2,800: Teen boys and active men


First, figure out what calorie group you're in (above). If you're in the first group, go with the smaller serving amount, and vice versa:

Bullet Dairy: 2-3 servings
Bullet Meat: 2-3 (includes beans, eggs, nuts)
Bullet Vegetables: 3-5
Bullet Fruit: 2-4
Bullet Bread: 6-11 (incudes rice, pasta, cereal)


The pyramid only advises "use sparingly."
The usual recommendation is 30-50 grams throughout the day.

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