Estimating food portions. Influence of unit number, meal type and energy density

Appetite. 2013 Dec:71:95-103. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2013.07.012. Epub 2013 Aug 8.


Estimating how much is appropriate to consume can be difficult, especially for foods presented in multiple units, those with ambiguous energy content and for snacks. This study tested the hypothesis that the number of units (single vs. multi-unit), meal type and food energy density disrupts accurate estimates of portion size. Thirty-two healthy weight men and women attended the laboratory on 3 separate occasions to assess the number of portions contained in 33 foods or beverages of varying energy density (1.7-26.8 kJ/g). Items included 12 multi-unit and 21 single unit foods; 13 were labelled "meal", 4 "drink" and 16 "snack". Departures in portion estimates from reference amounts were analysed with negative binomial regression. Overall participants tended to underestimate the number of portions displayed. Males showed greater errors in estimation than females (p=0.01). Single unit foods and those labelled as 'meal' or 'beverage' were estimated with greater error than multi-unit and 'snack' foods (p=0.02 and p<0.001 respectively). The number of portions of high energy density foods was overestimated while the number of portions of beverages and medium energy density foods were underestimated by 30-46%. In conclusion, participants tended to underestimate the reference portion size for a range of food and beverages, especially single unit foods and foods of low energy density and, unexpectedly, overestimated the reference portion of high energy density items. There is a need for better consumer education of appropriate portion sizes to aid adherence to a healthy diet.

Keywords: Energy density; Meal; Portion size estimation; Snack; Unit number.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Appetite / physiology
  • Beverages
  • Body Mass Index
  • Body Weight
  • Diet / psychology
  • Dietary Fats / administration & dosage
  • Dietary Fats / analysis
  • Energy Intake*
  • Female
  • Food
  • Food, Organic
  • Humans
  • Linear Models
  • Male
  • Meals / psychology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Serving Size / psychology*
  • Size Perception
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Young Adult


  • Dietary Fats