When you select a snack, or add food to your dinner plate, how often do you consider the number of servings you are consuming? Maintaining a healthy weight doesn't mean you must give up all of your favorite foods. You can build a healthy habit by limiting your servings of specific food groups--and sticking with a single serving size of desserts and other high-calorie favorites.

Serving Size Goals by Food Groups

To stick to proper serving sizes, you must first know the number of recommended daily servings for each food group. This varies according to your age, gender, level of activity, and whether you would like to lose weight, gain weight, or maintain your current weight.

The Mayo Clinic's Healthy Weight Pyramid tool allows people to calculate a personalized daily calorie goal, including information about how many servings of each food group to eat. For example, let's consider an individual whose daily calorie goal is 1,600 calories per day. This person should eat five or more servings of vegetables, five or more servings of fruits, six servings of carbohydrates, five servings of protein/dairy, and three servings of fats. But remember, this is only an example. The Mayo Clinic recommends modifications to the number of servings if your calorie goals are higher or lower.

What's a Serving Size?

Don't be intimidated by determining the correct serving size. You need not measure servings exactly, as long as you use some easy points of reference. Just looking at a food can provide helpful clues. The Mayo Clinic suggests that you keep in mind the following when determining a serving size:

  • One serving of vegetables is about equal to the size of a baseball, such as a medium bell pepper or half a cup of cooked carrots.
  • One serving of fruits is about the size of a tennis ball, such as a medium-sized orange or apple.
  • One serving of carbohydrates is roughly the size of a baseball cut in half, such as a small bun or half a cup of cooked pasta.
  • One serving of diary or protein products varies based on the type of food. For cheese, a single serving is similar to the size of four dice. For chicken, a 2.5-ounce serving is similar to the size of a deck of cards. A single egg is a serving, while a measuring cup full of 1 percent milk also represents a serving.
  • One serving of fat is equal to about two teaspoons of mayonnaise or ranch dressing. A single teaspoon of olive oil also represents a serving of fat.

You might be worried that serving sizes sound quite small. But remember, you need multiple servings from each category every day.

Be Extra Careful with Sweets

People tend to eat much more than a single serving when it comes to sweets, like soda, candy, cookies, and cakes. The Mayo Clinic recommends limiting your daily intake of sugary foods to one serving per day--or approximately 75 calories. For example, a half of a can (six ounces) of sweetened cola equals one serving. Four hard candy peppermints also equal one serving. If it helps, you can think about averaging out your intake of dessert foods over the week. You should always aim for less than 500 sweet calories a week.

Build a Better Habit: Keep Track of Serving Sizes

Now that you know the size of a typical serving of various foods, consider how many servings you generally eat at a single meal. If you don't keep track of serving sizes, it's easy to overindulge. Imagine cooking yourself a big dinner of spaghetti and meatballs: If you don't pay attention to serving sizes, you could easily eat more than your recommended amount of carbohydrates in a single meal. Remember, learning to manage your weight doesn't mean you have to give up your favorite foods. But if you want to stay healthy, you may need to limit the number of servings you eat at each meal.