Bag of chips lays open on table.

Why Are Serving Sizes So Small?

Have you ever started eating something that tasted good, and when you turned the package around to see how much of it you should eat you couldn’t believe it? Something like tortilla chips lists a serving size at around 7 chips! Who eats just seven chips at a time?

Serving sizes can catch us by surprise, especially when it comes to food that’s high in sugar or full of carbs. You go from eating at a restaurant where you get a plate full of food to grabbing a snack from the cupboard at home and reading that you should only have ten raisins or something like that.

Why are serving sizes so small? Well, it’s often a matter of perception. Our diets have shifted. Food is cheaper to make and consumers have more money to spend. Most people are eating more food than they should, so eating a “normal” serving size can leave you feeling like you need something more. Trying to eat servings that seem so small can be a challenge.

The truth is that there is actually some science going on behind how servings are determined and, done right, can help you enjoy things in moderation. Let’s explore a bit about where serving sizes come from and how you can use them to guide you in what you eat.

How Are Serving Sizes Determined?

Person is reading nutrition facts

If you are like most people, you flip the food packaging over to read how many calories are in something. You may glance at how many grams of fat are in there and how much sugar you’re eating in a serving, but that’s about it. If you’re on a diet, you may be interested in how many grams of carbs are in each serving, and if you’re in the gym a lot, you’re looking to see how much protein you’re getting from what you’re eating.

If you look at some of the fine print, though, you’ll see that serving sizes are based on a daily diet of around 2,000 calories. What that means is that if you’re trying to eat approximately 2,000 calories a day, then you should eat their recommended serving size. The serving size also accounts for things like how much sugar, sodium (salt), vitamins, and protein you should be getting to stay in what federal regulators say is a decent range.

If you’re thinking, “Why 2,000 calories?”, then you should know that food manufacturers use that as a baseline. With the research they’ve done, they’ve determined that most adults should be eating around that much per day to stay in decent shape and not be underweight or overweight.

Of course, it’s difficult to prescribe a calorie count for everyone at the same time. After all, people are different sizes and burn different amounts of calories per day, so it’s up to the consumer to use that baseline listed on the serving size and adjust appropriately.

Is It Basically to Look Better on Nutrition Facts?

A list tallying up total calories of certain foods.

Well, yes, to some degree. Food companies, for the most part, want to make foods people will enjoy eating and buy more frequently. They know, for example, that most people don’t stop at seven or ten chips or whatever it is. Two fig newton cookies have 100 calories in them, but if you’re like most teenagers, you can eat a whole row of them after school.

Food makers don’t limit serving sizes because they want to juice the numbers or anything. They’re guided by federal guidelines that stipulate what they have to put on the nutrition facts you find on food packaging. There is, however, some marketing at play.

If, for instance, they know that people, on average, eat six cookies when they buy their product, and that makes up for half of the expected caloric intake for the day, there is some risk there. If they put the serving size at six cookies, who would buy their product? People would flip the package over, see that six cookies have over 1,000 calories, and promptly place it back on the shelf.

So, food companies have to balance how much they know people will eat or want to eat, with peoples’ fear of eating foods with too many calories in them. If you see that a food item you’re buying has 150% of the amount of sugar you should eat in a day, you’re more likely to not eat it. In those cases, companies make their suggested serving sizes smaller to make you feel better about buying their products even though they know you’re probably going to eat more than the suggested serving size.

Who, after all, eats just half a cup of ice cream at a time? Am I right?

Is That Really All I Should Be Eating?

Assortment of random nutrition facts labels.

Sticking to suggested serving sizes isn’t exactly a science. It’s just a suggestion at the end of the day. Think of it as a guideline instead of a hardline.

If you’re having a hard time understanding how much of something, or just food in general, you should be eating, then sticking to the 2,000 calorie rule and following suggested serving sizes is a good place to start.

However, you can find all sorts of diets online where athletes, construction workers, and weightlifters eat as much as 10,000 calories per day. The reason is simple. They’re burning a lot of calories, so they need to eat more to replenish what they’re losing. In their case, eating more than one or two servings of beef jerky makes sense.

On the other hand, you may need to eat fewer than 2,000 calories if you want to lose weight or maintain a certain body weight. Imagine if you’re a smaller person or you don’t move around a lot, which is a reality a lot of people face if they work on a computer all day.

At the end of the day, if you want to eat more than one or two servings of something, then you might need to adjust how much you eat the rest of the day or go into a calorie deficit tomorrow. It’s a good way to measure how much of something you want to eat.

Do/Should Serving Sizes Differ from Adults to Children?

A family sits together for a meal at a dining room table.

The principle of serving sizes for people who burn different amounts of calories is the same for children vs adults. Little children may not need as many calories, for instance, but high schoolers may need a lot more than 2,000 calories because they’re growing.

Making Serving Sizes Work for You

The best thing you can do is shoot for a 2,000 calorie diet and see how your body reacts. If you start gaining weight, feeling sluggish, etc., then you may need to reduce your daily calorie intake. If you’re losing weight when you don’t want to, then up your calories, and you can eat more than just one serving of something.

If you’re surprised by the size of servings in the foods you eat, you may be overeating. If you’re feeling fine, though, and you’re at a good weight, then don’t worry too much about it. The best thing you can do is to listen to your body and make adjustments as you go.

The bottom line is that nutrition facts on the back of your food packages are a good way for people to gauge what they are eating and how many calories are in something. When we don’t know what we’re eating, it’s easier to overeat and miss some of the nutrients we need to stay healthy.


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