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Compare “Serving Size” to the Portion You’ll Actually Eat

“But to make sense of that, you have to look at the serving size. And then you have to compare that serving size with the amount you typically eat,” says Tallmadge. “Many people’s standard portion is more than what the package shows as a serving size. People grab one of the smaller size packages of pretzels or chips and think it’s a single serving, when in fact it’s two or three servings.” The result: they’re consuming two or three times what they thought.

The problem is compounded by portion creep. The typical serving sizes of snacks, sweets, restaurant entrees and even home-cooked meals have ballooned over the years. Researchers have documented serving size inflation even in the classic American cookbook, The Joy of Cooking. As the book as undergone periodic revisions over the decades, the estimated serving sizes of items like brownies have almost doubled. The upshot: many of us have grown used to portions that are far larger than standard serving sizes.

“For that reason, it’s essential to interpret the calories per serving in light of how much you typically eat,” says Suzanne Farrell, MS, RD, a dietitian in private practice who is also a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. In some cases, you’ll need to scale back portions to conform to the serving size -- and keep calorie counts in check.

Beyond Calories: Reading the Ingredient List

Food manufacturers know that more and more consumers read labels. Many try to use that fact to their advantage. “All kinds of claims are being made on packages -- that they’re fat-free, carb-free, sugar-free or low in calories,” says Talmadge. “Studies have shown that consumers, especially women, really respond to these messages. If they see a muffin advertised as fat-free, they buy it without another thought.”

The trouble is, that fat-free muffin may be loaded with sugar. So in addition to looking at the calories and serving size, Katherine advises dieters to look at the ingredient list. People who are counting calories need to pay especially close attention, since restricting calories makes it that much more difficult to get all the nutrients you need.

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