Words of Wellness: Servings schmervings. The word has lost all meaning.

Posted by on Apr 17, 2014 in The Food Well | 0 comments

“Serving” is the ubiquitous term we use to describe “a quantity of food suitable for, or served to, one person.” It’s also the term used by experts who are advising us on how to eat healthy.

The problem is, a “serving” is in the eyes of the beholder. Despite more specific definitions provided by the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) over the decades, most people tend to take the word at face value. A “serving” is what’s in front of me, whether that is a 2-liter bottle of soda, a pint of ice cream, or a 12-ounce flank steak.

Yes, packaged goods indicate how many servings are contained inside, but that’s in the fine print, and mostly we ignore it.

The word “serving” has always been vague, unhelpful and confusing…especially when it comes to fruits and vegetables. For years we were advised to eat “5 a day” – meaning 5 servings of fruits and vegetables. Unless you really did your homework, you probably didn’t know exactly how much food “5 servings” translated into.

Later, as the link between a healthy diet and disease prevention became better understood, the goal changed. The recommended servings increased, from 5 a day to 9 to 13 servings a day, depending on where the advice was coming from. It got complicated, and unfortunately the high-level message remained vague. And that’s why it’s time for those giving Americans dietary advice to stop talking about “servings.”

Move over servings, hello cups.

Both the 2005 and the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) contain the recommendations that we should aim for approximately 3 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit every day. In fact, in 2010, the DGAs totally relinquished “servings,” when it comes to fruits and vegetables, for something far more practical, measurable and specific: cups.

We’re back to 5, only this time it’s 5 cups, not servings. Cups, half cups, quarter cups…these are common measurements. So it’s easier to actually understand the goal, and to achieve it. Bravo.

Unfortunately, this change has escaped the notice of many in the food and nutrition world. We can’t seem to expunge the silly word from our nutritional vocabulary. It’s time to get specific about dietary advice. Vagueness won’t help American achieve increased consumption of fruits and vegetables, which we know is key to better health.

Words matter: Move over servings, hello cups.

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