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Veggie Advisor: How do we approach serving sizes at WHFoods?

"Super-sized" meals have become a controversial food topic in the U.S., and in some parts of the country, local governments have tried to set limits on the serving size of soft drinks that are commonly sold in corner groceries and food marts. This controversy over serving size hasn't been focused solely on the physical amount of food, however. It has also been focused on the calorie content of the food.

At WHFoods, we believe that this calorie-related aspect of the debate is important, and when we established our own food serving sizes, we definitely took calories into account. For example, when we selected our serving size for romaine lettuce, we decided to go with a serving size of 2 cups. For some people, that serving size might sound high. But for us, it made no sense to set a lower serving size for this amazing vegetable. Two cups of romaine lettuce contain only 16 calories. You get delicious taste and texture from romaine lettuce, and a lot of chewing satisfaction. It is not daunting task to eat 2 cups of romaine. And the nutrient richness of this vegetable allows it to achieve 4 ratings of excellent, 8 ratings of very good, and 9 ratings of good in our WHFoods rating system.

Even though we did not establish a serving size this large for any other food, a 2-cup serving size made sense for romaine lettuce, and calorie content played a definite role in our thinking. By contrast, walnuts are a food that holds a special value for us at WHFoods since their excellent omega-3 fat content is second only to flaxseeds on our website. But we limited our walnut serving size to 1/4 cup, partly due to the 196 calories provided by this relatively small amount. If we had set a 2 cup serving size for walnuts, we would have been recommending an amount that contained 1,568 calories from a single serving of this food.

In addition to the types of considerations describe above, we also tried to stick with common units of measurement and servings sizes that would not feel too skimpy to enjoy while at the same time providing a strong diversity of foods within an 1,800-2,000 meal plan. Although many people think about the term "serving size" as being relatively simple, there are many surprising twists and turns when you look closely at the meaning of this term. In the paragraphs below, we want to take you through some of these twists and turns, and explain the way in which we navigated through them when constructing our rating system, recipes, and meal plans.

Types of serving sizes

There are two types of serving sizes that you will find throughout our website. The first type is associated with the amount of food that we analyze in order to determine the nutrient content of our 100 WHFoods. For example, in all of our Meats & Poultry, we use a serving size of 4 weighted ounces when evaluating nutrient content. For our Beans & Legumes, we use a serving size of 1 cup.

The second the type of serving size that you will find throughout our website is associated with the amount of food that we expect a person to consume after preparing one of our recipes. Very few of our recipes are designed to provide a single serving. Most (although not all) are designed to provide 4 servings. When we talk about serving sizes within this context, we are talking about the portion of a recipe that we are expecting a person to consume.

Why serving sizes can be confusing

Serving sizes can be quite confusing for two basic reasons. First is the problem of weight versus volume. It is very common, for example, to refer to "4 ounces" as a serving size. But whenever a serving size is stated in this way, the unit of measurement actually remains unclear. "4 ounces" might refer to the weight of a food when it is placed on a scale. But it also might refer to how much of a measuring cup gets filled up when the food is placed inside it. If the top side of the food is exactly even with the 4-ounce line on the measuring cup, this amount is also "4 ounces." But it is 4 ounces by volume, not by weight. On the scale, we are talking about weight. Inside of the measuring cup, we are talking about volume. And while it is possible that four weighted ounces of food could correspond exactly to four volumetric ounces in a measuring cup, that possibility seldom occurs. So if you don't know whether "4 ounces" refers to volume or weight, you don't actually know the serving size, and it can be easy to get confused.

A second type of confusion associated with serving sizes involves food preparation. Cooking can dramatically change both the volume and weight of a food. Anyone who has cooked spinach is very familiar with the change in volume that occurs when raw spinach is cooked. A whole bag of fresh baby spinach that looks like a very generous amount prior to cooking can shrivel down to what looks like an embarrassingly small amount. Especially when serving sizes are measured by volume, cooking can have a large impact. So it can be quite confusing if you don't know whether a cup of spinach means a cup's worth before or after cooking.

Shredding, chopping, and slicing can also dramatically change the amount of space that is occupied by a food. If you take a whole stalk of broccoli and try to fit it (unsliced) into a measuring cup, you are unlikely to get very much of it in the cup. It just doesn't fit. (Most of the space in the cup will remain filled with air instead of broccoli due to the odd shape of the broccoli in comparison with the shape of the measuring cup. But if you chop up that stalk up into very thin slices—or even shred it with a shredded —you will be able to get a lot more of it into the cup. In other words, cut versus uncut can confuse the issue just as much as cooked versus raw whenever serving sizes are measured by volume.

Our approach to units of measurement at WHFoods

As a basic rule at WHFoods, we always try to adopt units of measurement that are commonly used in the kitchen. When working with recipes, most foods are measured with the help of a measuring cup (or sometimes a tablespoon or teaspoon). Few foods are measured by weight. Meats, poultry, and seafood are well-known exceptions to this rule since these are foods typically are measured by weight. And for this reason, we have used weight as a unit of measurement for all of these foods on our website. But for most part, we like to use cups as our unit of measurement since most people use a measuring cup when adding foods to a recipe.

Our basic approach to serving sizes at WHFoods

We have three basic principles in mind whenever we select serving sizes for our WHFoods. First, we like to use common, everyday serving sizes in our recipes and meal plans. For example, 34 of the 38 WHFoods vegetables have a one-cup serving size. Second, we like to associate this serving size with the way a food is most commonly eaten. If a food is most commonly consumed in raw form, we like to apply our serving size to this form of the food. If a food is most commonly cooked before consumption, we like to apply our serving size to the cooked form. Third, we try to select serving sizes that don't seem too "extreme" in either direction: we didn't want the serving sizes to be too skimpy and dissatisfying, or too daunting to eat.

Establishing a serving size can be difficult for some foods. For example, within our WHFoods vegetables, we were able to use a one cup serving size for 34 of the 38 vegetables. But we did end up with four exceptions to this rule, as follows: garlic, with a six clove serving size; olive oil and sea vegetables, both with a serving size of one tablespoon; and romaine lettuce, with a serving size of two cups. For garlic, it made no sense to measure in cups. We could have measured in teaspoons, but we thought it seemed more practical to use cloves as the natural form of this food. We also could have used a single clove as our serving size, but we chose not to use this amount because it prevented us from doing an accurate nutritional analysis of garlic. At only 3 grams per clove, a one-clove serving size was too small for us to analyze and accurately represent the nutrient richness of this vegetable. For olive oil and sea vegetables, a serving size of one tablespoon seemed like a realistic amount to use in a recipe. And as mentioned earlier in this article, we found fresh romaine lettuce as being too low in calories (8 calories per cup), too rich in nutrients (achieving 4 ratings of excellent, 8 ratings of very good, and 9 ratings of good in its nutrient profile), and too wonderful in texture and taste to restrict our serving size to a single cup. (And so we went with a 2-cup serving size for romaine lettuce.)

Many of our entrée type recipes provide between 250-400 calories per serving, and many of our side dish type recipes provide between 100-200 calories. In our meal plans, we often provide about 1800 total calories, with approximately 500 calories per meal and the remainder of the calories from snacks. Our serving sizes allow us to provide you with these types of overall results while keeping your diet diverse and nutrient rich. We would also point out that we could not achieve these results without the help of our 38 vegetables and their predominant one-cup serving size. It's invaluable to get such a satisfying serving size, so few calories, and so much nutrient richness when you are trying to put together an enjoyable meal plan that will also work from a calorie standpoint.

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