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A Nutritionist's View: Finding the Perfect Diet: Revisiting the Pyramid

Manore, Melinda M. Ph.D., R.D., FACSM; Vannoy, Jennifer M.S.


Teaching clients about standard portion sizes and what represents a single serving for each food group using the Food Guide Pyramid will help with weight management.

Melinda M. Manore, Ph.D., R.D., FACSM, is Chair and professor, Department of Nutrition and Food Management at Oregon State University and is a member of the Gatorade Sports Nutrition Advisory Board, Golf Magazine Fitness Advisory Board, and the USA Swimming Performance Team on Nutrition. Her research focuses on women’s health issues, nutrition and exercise, energy balance and weight control, and disordered eating. Dr. Manore is an associate editor of ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal® and the author of Sport Nutrition for Health and Performance.

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Jennifer Vannoy has an M.S. in Nutrition and Food Management from Oregon State University (OSU) and is currently in her dietetic internship. She is also employed as a group fitness instructor at the YMCA.

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Your clients are always asking you what to eat. How often do they ask you how much they should eat? With the abundance of highly palatable, readily available foods in our society, Americans are tempted by seemingly endless choices, thus, it is not surprising that the number of people who are overweight and obese is at epidemic rates in the U.S. It also is no surprise that larger portion sizes lead to increased energy intake, which can contribute to obesity (1–3). Learning to identify and then select appropriate portion sizes can be a challenge. Teach your clients to be savvy food label readers and make them more aware of the “supersize” phenomenon. Making them aware of the impact serving size has on their waist line may play a significant role in helping them achieve their weight goals.

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In the last column, we discussed ways to consume a healthy diet by using the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Guide Pyramid (Figure 1). The Pyramid clearly defines a serving size and recommends a range of servings per food group to be eaten each day (4). Perhaps the most confusing part of using the Pyramid is learning what represents a single serving for each food group.

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Food Guide Pyramid Recommendations

The recommended number of servings from each food group in the Pyramid is based on the energy (kcal) needs of the individual (Table 1). Thus, a small, sedentary individual trying to lose weight might consume 6–7 servings from the grain group instead of the 6–11 servings recommended for larger or more active individuals. But how do consumers know what a serving of grain represents? When the Pyramid was developed, the suggested number of daily servings was based on a standard Pyramid serving size, such as those given in Table 2 (5). These standard serving sizes were created after considering four primary factors:

* typical portion size eaten

* ease of use

* nutrient content of the serving

* the traditional amount eaten

Both the number and size of recommended servings were designed to provide consumers with a tool for making good food choices to promote health. However, the serving sizes used on the food label may not always equal what is typically considered a standard serving size in the Pyramid (5).

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Making Sense of the Nutrition Facts Label

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the information placed in the Nutrition Facts Label box on food packages. The FDA mandates that serving size and the number of servings per container be listed. Unfortunately, the serving sizes used on the label do not reflect what is typically consumed (2). For example, a 20 oz. Coke contains 2.5 8 oz. servings, and most individual will consume the whole bottle rather than just one serving. Thus, unless you carefully read the food label, eating the amount of food typically served in the market place can add up to big calories (5).

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Measuring Up The Portions

To help emphasize how important it is to learn standard portion sizes, we conducted our own, non-scientific investigation into portion size discrepancies. Table 3 demonstrates just how dramatically portions vary between the standard recommendations and what is typically served. The bottom line: We eat more if served large portions, and larger portions mean more calories! For example, a 12-oz. serving of steak equals approximately 5 Food Guide Pyramid servings from the meat group and contains 5 times the amount of fat and energy as a single (2-3 oz.) serving. According to the label, one serving of regular vanilla ice cream equals ½ cup and totals about 150 kcals. A 2½ cup portion, similar to what you might be served at an ice-cream parlor, totals about 670 kcals! Even low-fat foods contain a lot more calories when a large portion is consumed. A 4-oz. plain bagel is equivalent to 4 servings from the grains group. It also contains almost 315 kcals, compared to approximately 80 kcals in a 1-oz. serving. A cup Food Guide Pyramid serving of orange juice has about 85 kcals, whereas the 1½-cup marketplace portion contains almost 170 kcals.

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Be Aware Of What You Eat

If a client wants to lose weight, you can help by encouraging them to pay closer attention to the amounts and types of foods they consume. Help them learn the differences between standard serving sizes and the portions they may have become familiar with at restaurants and at home. If a person typically consumes larger portions, then reduce the number of servings eaten. Encourage use of foods that are nutrient dense (lots of vitamins and minerals) and low in calories, such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Plenty of these types of foods can satisfy the appetite with fewer calories and less fat, and help with weight management.

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1. Rolls, BJ The Supersizing of America: Portion Size and the Obesity Epidemic. Nutrition Today 38(2):42-53, 2003.
2. Young, LR, and M Nestle. Expanding portion sizes in the US marketplace: Implications for nutrition counseling. J Am Diet Assoc 103:231-234, 2003.
3. Putnam J, J Allshouse, and L Kantor. U.S. Per Capita Food Supply Trends: More Calories, Refined Carbohydrates, and Fats. USDA Economic Research Service. FoodReview 25(3):2-15, 2002.
4. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Food Guide Pyramid (1992). Available at Accessed July 12, 2003.
5. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Serving Sizes in the Food Guide Pyramid and on the Nutrition Facts Label: What’s Different and Why? Nutrition Insights No. 22, December 2000. Available at
© 2004 American College of Sports Medicine