Food For Thought

woman with a cart shopping looking at a nutrition label at the supermarket

Could More Honest Serving Sizes Lead to Bigger Waistlines?

Eric Baron, 09/29/2015

The search for the perfect weight loss program is deeply embedded in our culture—it’s pretty much the Holy Grail of diet and nutrition in America. Now the FDA is changing Nutrition Facts labels and serving sizes as we know them.


But will these changes hurt or help Americans with their health and weight loss plans?

First, what is a healthy diet? Plenty of us want something fast and easy—a magic bullet (or diet pill). Americans look to big-name doctors, scour nutrition labels, and study the food pyramid.

The basics of nutrition still hold true: Eat a plant-based diet of greens, other veggies, legumes, fruits, berries, nuts, and seeds, and you’ll be eating a diet that not only boosts your daily energy and reduces fat stores, but also has anti-aging effects and prevents disease. A plant-based diet is naturally low-calorie, since there aren’t many starches, dairy products, or other animal proteins (all higher in calories and low in the nutrients that promote better health and well being).

Part of our idea of a healthy diet has been shaped by the Nutrition Facts label, the table of macronutrient (protein, carbs, and fats) and micronutrient (vitamins and minerals) information on the back of almost every packaged food product.

For those of us who haven’t checked it in a while, or have only distractedly browsed its contents in the checkout line at the grocery store, the table includes caloric content, percent daily values of nutrients (i.e. how much of certain nutrients you should eat, determined by the FDA based on a 2,000 calorie diet), and serving sizes.

However, the “facts” in this table are outdated. They were put together about 20 years ago in a scientific study when the FDA determined what a “serving size” is by looking at what (and how much) most people were eating. It was defined through surveys and not what people actually should be eating.

Consider a bar of chocolate. Although it might appear like 2.5 servings, the Nutrition Facts may list a serving size of “1 bar.” Despite the serving size of one bar, it isn’t recommended to consume the whole thing at one time.

Now the FDA is updating the current serving sizes on Nutrition Facts labels. What most people don’t realize is, those “serving sizes” are more like portions or a percentage of what’s inside the package, and not a portion size for your plate or a recommended consumption guide.

In other words, it’s not really what or how much you should be eating—especially if it’s a few more handfuls of chips (baked or not) or extra forkfuls of pasta (yes, even whole wheat noodles). This misconception can lead many dieting or health-minded Americans astray.

The good, the bad, and the ugly for Americans’ diet plans: does more “transparency” lead to increased clarity?


The good part is that we will have more data and more up-to-date information. This is an attempt by the Food and Drug Administration to be more transparent and accurate.

But, if the FDA resorts once more to the average American as a basis for its recommended dosage of nutrients and caloric consumption, we might be in trouble (not to mention that plenty of us might already be OD’ing on the carbs, fats, salts, and sugars that are commonly used in packaged and processed foods).

Remember that participants in the original survey were asked what they were eating back then. What will serving sizes look like now if people on average are eating more than they did 20 years ago?

Host and producer of Science Friday, Ira Flatow, spoke with Roberto Ferdman, reporting for the The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, and in their discussion Ferdman cited a New York University study that investigated what might happen if the FDA revises the “Nutrition Facts label (with larger serving sizes).”

The study found that, with the newly proposed label, a large number of consumers did not understand what the term “serving size” really means (they might eat more food, and they might buy and serve more food to other people).

Hopefully, if we can draw more attention to the issue, Americans’ widespread beliefs as they relate to serving sizes will change.

In addition, more awareness of what our bodies need to be healthy, what is in our food, and consuming more fresh, unprocessed and unpackaged foods can lead to a departure from an obsession with calorie counting and set “serving sizes” on a mass scale.


If it’s broccoli or romaine lettuce we’re talking about, treat yourself right to an extra serving.





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