NLEA Serving Size on Food Labels

Nutrition facts label
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An NLEA serving size is the amount of food that is generally consumed by one person during a single eating occasion. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration provides guidelines to food manufacturers for calculating the correct serving size.

But you can use different serving size guidelines to decide how much food to eat to reach and maintain a healthy weight. For instance, you can listen to your own internal hunger cues. Listed below are definitions of serving size or portion size defined by various organizations. But these definitions should not necessarily overrule signs of hunger or satiety that you feel.

The practice of intuitive eating—choosing foods and food amounts based on internal cues—may offer the best guidance and personalized approach for you. But you can use these definitions to educate yourself about packaging and dietary guidelines for the general public.

NLEA Serving Size Definition

Many people assume that the serving size listed on the nutrition facts label is the amount of food that they are supposed to eat. But that assumption is wrong. The serving size listed on food packages is not the recommended serving. And that’s the law.

According to the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), serving size must be based on the amount of food we typically eat, not on the amount of food we should eat. So how do food manufacturers know how much of their product we typically eat? They are required to use a standard guideline called the Reference Amount Customarily Consumed (RACC) to calculate serving size.

Reference amounts (RACCs) were developed by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) after years of studying eating behavior. But as you might imagine, the amount of food we typically eat has changed over time. In many cases, we are eating larger portions of popular foods, like bagels and soft drinks. So, the way that the FDA determines what is a serving size can change as well.

More Serving Size Definitions

It can be helpful to understand the difference between these different serving size definitions:

  • Serving Size or NLEA Serving Size: The amount of food typically consumed during a single eating occasion, based on the FDA’s RACC. Serving size is listed on the Nutrition Facts label.
  • Recommended Serving Size: The amount of each food that some people should eat as determined by various health organizations.
  • Portion size: The amount of each food that you actually eat.

So, which definition should you use to determine how much food to eat? You can use the recommended serving size to guide your decisions. But it's generally best to use mindful or intuitive eating practices and listen to your body. You can also get personalized recommendations for the amount of food to eat each day.

To find out how much food to eat or to learn more about intuitive eating, you can visit a registered dietitian to discuss a healthy eating plan. You can also use an online calorie calculator to determine the number of calories you need. If you are trying to lose weight, you can use a calculator targeted for weight loss

Once you get your calorie goal, divide your calories between daily meals and snacks. For example, if you need to eat a standard 2,000 calorie per day diet, you might eat 500 calories at each of three meals and consume two snacks that total 250 calories each. Then choose correct portion sizes when you consume your meals to reach those calorie target goals.

Educating yourself about the food combinations and portion sizes that help you to feel satisfied can help prevent yo-yo dieting and weight fluctuations. It can also help you reach your nutrition and health goals.

Serving Sizes Definitions by Food Group

So what are the most commonly recommended serving sizes of various foods? Guidelines vary but in general,

  • A serving size of fruit is usually 1 medium whole fruit or ½ cup cooked, canned fruit or 1/4 cup dried fruit
  • A serving size of vegetables is usually one cup of raw or cooked leafy greens or ½ cup of higher calorie vegetables like carrots.
  • A serving size of potatoes, pasta or grains is ½ cup or one slice of bread
  • A serving of dairy is one cup of skim milk or yogurt or 1.5 ounces of cheese
  • A serving size of meat, fish or poultry is about 3 ounces
  • A​ serving size of oil or salad dressing is 2 teaspoons
  • A serving size of alcohol depends on the drink that you choose. A serving of wine is 4 ounces, a serving of beer is 12 ounces and a serving of liquor is 1.5 ounces

To find out how many servings of each food are recommended for people in your age and gender category, you can use the USDA Supertracker. Serving size recommendations are also based on your activity level. You can visit their website to customize a plan for healthy eating or weight loss.

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Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. CFR- Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. Updated April 1, 2019.

  2. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Examination of Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols. History of nutrition labeling. In: Wartella EA, Lichtenstein AH, Boon CS, eds., Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols: Phase I Report. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2010.

  3. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Food portions and servings. How do they differ?. Updated March 1999.

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