Food Portion Sizes Explained
How much should you eat? What healthy food portion sizes and calorie intake will help you lose weight?
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Here are some surprisingly simple secrets to help you understand and control food portion sizes, so you can get the balance right at every meal.
The Great Calorie Debate
People all over the world are concerned about calories.
In some countries, people struggle to get enough calories to survive and avoid disease, and malnutrition is rife. Poor populations rely on starchy staples which lead to significant deficiencies of protein, vitamins and minerals.
But in many countries, people are simply eating too much – their food portion sizes are too big, or out of balance. Overweight societies suffer from a range of inflammatory diseases that could be easily managed with more fruit and vegetables and smaller portions of processed, unhealthy foods.
The World Health Organization says these situations – too little or too much food, and food quality – are part of a global food epidemic (1).
The Benefits of Managing Food Portion Sizes – and Calorie Intake
Everyone has different life situations and nutritional needs. But the most important things are getting enough protein, vitamins and minerals, and of course, appropriate calorie intake.
The EASIEST way to manage calorie intake and calorie control is by knowing all about healthy food portion sizes.
Getting it right gives you the following benefits:
- Lose weight/maintain healthy weight
- Overcome and avoid food cravings
- Increase energy levels and avoid energy dips
- Regulate blood sugar and insulin
- Enjoy healthy digestion
- Improve sleep quality
- Improve immunity
- Live longer.
There are many studies that show that reducing portion size to help manage calorie intake increases both health and life span (2, 3, 4).
3 Best Methods for Calorie Control – Without Counting Calories
The three best methods to get calorie intake right – without counting calories – are with:
Getting food portion sizes right at every meal and snack, and
Eating a broad variety of whole (unprocessed) foods.
You can easily start developing these new healthy eating habits to help you manage how much you eat.
Measuring Portion Size vs Counting Calories
But these methods can be confusing, time-consuming and tedious.
‘Counting’ methods can easily lead you into the trap of eating unhealthy foods just because they have low calories in them!
Let’s look at how to manage portion size instead, to lose weight and feel great.
5 Simple Secrets for Getting Portion Size Right
1. Enjoy regular meals:
Starting within 1 hour of waking, eat something every 3 – 4 hours
When you get into this habit, you’ll avoid feeling ‘starving’ so it’s easier to get your food portion sizes right, and avoid binge eating and over-eating.
Regular meals will help you feel hungrier more often.
That’s right – feeling slightly hungry every few hours is normal and it’s a great sign that your metabolism is working efficiently.
Missed or irregular meals can tell your body it’s being starved, prompting a survival response to store fat around the middle – just what you’re trying to avoid.
Small, regular meals often means automatic portion control.
2. Drink lots of water:
Most people need about 2 – 3 litres per day, depending on activity and environment
Water, especially consumed 10 minutes before a meal, will take the edge of your hunger and help you avoid overeating.
3. Include some protein at every meal
At least 25% of your plate should be made up of protein.
Protein helps you feel full so less likely to overeat or reach for a sweet after-meal treat because regular protein intake through the day helps you to maintain a steadier blood sugar.
Getting enough protein is especially important if you’re following a low calorie diet plan, because if your body doesn’t get enough protein, it may otherwise sacrifice muscle tissue to meet it’s protein needs – and muscle is your secret fat-burning weapon.
4. Healthy portion sizes – a guide for adults:
Fruits, Grains/cereals or starchy vegetables: a small handful
Fat: Whatever you can fit into 1 – 2 tablespoons (nuts, hard cheese, olives, avocado, large seeds).
These might seem like smaller portion sizes than you’re used to, but they’re actually about right for most people.
5. Eat until 80% full:
How do you do this?
First – pay attention to your meal. Turn off the TV, close the magazine, sit down, and concentrate on your food.
Second – eat slowly. Your meal should take about 20 minutes to eat. Or if you eat faster than that, wait until 20 minutes has passed and see how you feel.
If your food portion sizes were right, 20 minutes after finishing your meal, you should feel:
- Satisfied – you’ve had enough
- Free of cravings
- Energised or alert, able to concentrate
- Free of discomfort like burping, bloating, fullness
Portion size plates are a great way to get a portion size visual. The plate has diagrams on it indicating how much protein, carbs and fat to put on your plate.
Emotional factors can cause some people to overeat. Things like boredom, loneliness, sadness, disappointment, anger or stress can drive some people to eat too much, or eat less healthy foods, or both.
If you’re feeling any of these emotions, stop and ask yourself::
‘Am I really hungry, or am I looking for an emotional ‘fix’?’
A glass of water or a casual walk outside might be a better option.
Examples of Healthy Portion Sizes for Specific Foods
How much is a portion?
If the guideline above (palm, handfuls, thumb) is difficult to grasp, look at the examples of healthy food portion sizes below and the food portion size pictures on the right.
The ranges shown are for the normal range of adult body weights.
Portion sizes for children are less than this.
A portion size for men and teenage boys might be more than this, if they are active.
Fresh or Frozen Vegetables
= ½ cup / one small vegetable
Fresh or Canned Fruit in natural juice
= ½ cup / one small piece of fruit
Dried Fruits – 1 tablespoon
= 2 dried apricot halves
= 2 dates
= 3 prunes
= 20 sultanas
Lean meats – 100 – 150g
= 1 – 2 slices roast beef
= 1 chicken breast (one side)
= 1 medium fish fillet
= 2 French lamb cutlets
= 1 palm-sized piece of steak or fish
= 2 slices of leg ham
Dairy products – 80 – 100g
= ½ glass milk
= 1 large scoop of ice-cream
= 1 x 20g slice cheddar cheese
= 2 cheese cubes
= 2 tablespoons of 60% less fat cream cheese spread
= 4 tablespoons of low fat plain cottage cheese
Grains, legumes and cereals
= ½ cup cooked rice, pasta, cous cous, oats, chickpeas, dried beans etc
= one slice of bread (any type)
For more information on portion sizes including portion size pictures, visit:
- World Health Organisation. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Health Synthesis. www.who.org
- Barzilai, N and Bartke, A. 2008. Biological Approaches to Mechanistically Understand the Healthy Life Span Extension Achieved by Calorie Restriction and Modulation of Hormones. Journals of Gerontology 64A (2), 187 – 191.
- Fontana, L. 2009. The scientific basis of caloric restriction leading to longer life. Current Opinion in Gastroenterology 25, 144 – 150.
- Omodei, D and Fontana, L. 2011. Calorie restriction and prevention of age-associated chronic disease. Federation of European Biochemical Societies, Published by Elsevier Press.