9 Tips to Measure and Control Portion Sizes

8 Portion-Control Hacks That Really Work

As a nutritionist and portion-size researcher, I’ve helped thousands of clients slim down while eating foods they love with my «Portion Teller» program. My philosophy is simple. All foods are allowed—some in unlimited amounts (non-starchy vegetables and fruits), some in moderate portions (whole grains, dairy, and healthy fats) and others in small portions (alcohol and sweets). To lose weight, it is necessary to eat fewer calories than you burn.

So where does portion-control fit in?

When you eat less, you take in fewer calories. However, as a portion-size researcher and clinician, the term “portion-control” doesn’t mean eating tiny portions. In fact a dieter’s worst enemy is staring at a half empty plate and being hungry—and hangry!—all the time. The key to successful weight loss is being able to distinguish between which foods you can eat plentifully and which foods you do really need to watch. It also means being able to correctly estimate how much you should be eating (and are actually eating) so that you can stick with a healthy food plan.

As my research found, restaurant portions and food packages much larger than they were in the past, making it increasingly more difficult to estimate how much food we really should eat. Many fast-food portions are two to five times large than they were 50 years ago, contributing to “portion distortion,” a phenomenon where we have a faulty perception and consider oversize portions to be normal.

For some good news, certain practices may actually make it easier to control your portions. Below are my tips and tricks to helping you manage your portions while shedding a few pounds along the way without feeling in the least bit deprived.

1. Follow the half-plate rule.

I’ve said this before. No one got fat eating fruits and vegetables. While a banana may have more calories than a cup of cantaloupe, enjoying a banana will not make you fat. Similarly, while a cup of carrots contains more calories than a cup of lettuce, this orange sweet-tasting veggie will not fatten you up. Fruits and vegetables are loaded with fiber and water helping you to feel full while also giving your body vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants good for your health.

Size it up: Fill half of your plate with colorful fruits and vegetables at each meal. Practicing portion control will feel a whole lot simpler.

2. Mix and match.

To practice portion-control effectively, you do not want to feel hungry. To avoid such feelings, I suggest eating foods that contain nutrients that promote feelings of fullness. Protein, fiber, and heart-healthy fats do the trick. Therefore at each meal, try “mixing and matching:” eating a combination of foods to keep you satiated. Include protein-rich foods such as fish, chicken, eggs, beans, and grass-fed beef; fiber-rich fruits, vegetables and whole grains (brown rice, sweet potato, quinoa); and a sprinkling of healthy fats including olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds.

Size it up: A yummy—and filling—dinner includes grilled salmon, roasted asparagus and cauliflower, and cup of quinoa.

3. Smartsize your dishes (and your spoons!).

Considerable research has shown that the size of our plates, bowls and even utensils (yes, spoons!) can play a major role in the amount of food we eat. The larger the plate the more we serve ourselves and tend to eat.

Eating off of a larger plate can actually be a good strategy for salads and veggies that we want to eat more of. And not all portion-control strategies are about eating less. However, for a pasta meal, I’d certainly suggest downsizing your bowl.

Spoon sizes and drinking glasses make a difference too!

In a study by Cornell researchers, nutrition experts given a larger bowl served themselves 31.0% more without even noticing. And, when given a larger serving spoon, their servings increased by 14.5%. And these are experts! Imagine how food novices would respond.

University of Cambridge researchers reported that people drank more wine when their glass was bigger. A larger wine glass may change our perception of how much wine constitutes a portion, perhaps leading us to drink faster and to order more.

Size it up: Want to enjoy an ice cream treat in the dog days of summer? Use a small bowl and a teaspoon instead of a tablespoon.

4. Make a fist and use your hand as a portion guide.

Your hand can be one of the best tools around to help you gauge portion sizes. Therefore, when I wrote my book, The Portion Teller Plan, I created a “handy’ guide to help people determine how much food they should be eating.

When you go out to eat, which Americans do quite often these days, you’re not likely to bring along a food scale and measuring cups but you always have your hand.

Since so many of us overdo our starch portion (think rice, pasta, and potato), I advise clients to make a fist and enjoy a healthy 1-cup portion instead of banning starch altogether.

This method is not an exact science (after all, we all have different size hands) but it sure does come in handy.

• a fist = 1 cup of rice, pasta, cereal

• palm of your hand = 3 ounces of poultry or meat

• 2 fingers (a peace sign) = 2 ounce of cheese

• bent thumb joint = 1 tablespoon of oil or peanut butter

Size it up: Want to include an occasional serving of red meat in your diet, without overdoing it? Think a palm’s worth. And, add lots of colorful veggies to round out your plate.

5. Don’t leave home without your checkbook and dental floss.

Visualizing everyday objects can also be a great way to estimate serving sizes. Check out these familiar items to help keep your portions in check. For additional visuals, check out my book The Portion Teller Plan.

• baseball = 1 cup of starch (rice, pasta, potatoes)

• deck of cards = 3-4 ounces of poultry or meat

• checkbook = 4 ounces white fish

• shot glass = 2 tablespoons oil or salad dressing

• package of dental floss = 1 ounce of a treat: a cookie or piece of chocolate

Size it up: No need to ban healthy grains from your dinner plate. Fill half of your plate with your favorite veggies, a quarter of the plate healthy protein (1-2 decks of cards) and the other quarter (think one baseball’s worth!) with healthy grain such as wild rice, whole wheat pasta, or whole sorghum.

6. Indulge, once in a while

As I tell my weight-loss clients, it is OK to include a daily treat to keep you from feeling deprived and to make your eating plan enjoyable. This practice makes it easier to practice portion-control and stick to a healthy food plan for the long term.

Size it up: Enjoy an occasional glass of wine with dinner or a cookie for dessert. Include a large bowl of mixed berries too!

7. Stock up on baggies and small containers.

A comprehensive report from researchers at the Behaviour and Health Research Unit (BHRU), University of Cambridge confirmed that larger portions and packages contribute to overeating. We tend to eat more when our food packages are bigger! And, we do not even feel more full.

Instead of surrounding ourselves with temptation, I suggest buying single-serving packages or pre-portioning your favorite snacks and putting them into baggies which you can grab when you are hungry.

Size it up: Keep small containers handy too so you can store leftovers in perfect portions.

8. Slow down, you move (and eat) too fast…

Yes, this catchy phrase (minus my add in) comes from the lyrics of the popular Simon and Garfunkel song, The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling’ Groovy). Here’s my food spin on it. When you slow down in all areas of your life, you tend to be more mindful, and are generally more in tune with your body’s needs. You also end up eating less! A win-win!

Size it up: Savor your meal, enjoy your dining companion, and breathe in between bites.

I offer more portion hacks here and here.

We’d love to hear about your favorite portion tricks.

Clinical Trials

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) and other components of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conduct and support research into many diseases and conditions.

For Real Weight Control, Try Portion Control

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2. WebMD graphic/ photos from Thinkstock
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12. Brayden Knell / WebMD
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26. Dave King / Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images 

SOURCES:

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: «Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth without All the Sugar.»

American Diabetes Association.

American Heart Association.

Caloriecount.com.

ChooseMyPlate.gov.

CulturalIndia.net.

Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020.

Mangels, R. Vegetarian Journal, July/Aug 2000.

MyPyramid.gov.

Nemours Foundation: «Vitamins.»

USDA: «Sweet Potatoes.»

Western Michigan University: «Standard Serving Sizes.»

But back to portions. If you’re serious about losing or maintaining weight, you’d be wise to learn the size of a healthful portion of various categories of foods and treat what is typically served in restaurants to individual diners as servings for two or more. My “lean and mean” son and daughter-in-law in Los Angeles routinely order one entree for two people, and often have leftovers to take home for lunch the next day. In fact, my daughter-in-law usually requests a to-go container when the meal is ordered and packs up the excess food even before they dig in.

Still, Dr. Young insists — and I agree — that it’s far more helpful to prepare and eat most of your meals at home. You’ll know what’s in them (was that grilled fish you ordered prepared with a tablespoon of butter?) and how much lands on your plate. In fact, start by downsizing your dinner dishes to salad-plate size, and you can save nearly 600 calories a meal. Use measuring cups to dole out reasonable portions until you are able to eyeball them accurately. You might also invest in a kitchen scale to help you keep meat, poultry and fish servings to three or four ounces.

I know you’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating: Fill half or more of your plate with low-carbohydrate vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, green beans, carrots and brussels sprouts, and have a side salad with a dribble of dressing. Limit starchy vegetables like white and sweet potatoes (baked, not fried) and grains (whole, not refined) to a half-cup serving, one-cup max.

Dr. Young urges people to “get over their fear of carbs — if you’re eating the right kinds of grains in the right amounts, they don’t make you fat. They make you full — and provide you with a battalion of disease-fighting nutrients,” she wrote. But watch out for those oversized New York bagels, whole grain or otherwise, that are the caloric equivalent of six slices of bread.

Many people are unaware of how much, or how often, they eat. Keeping a food diary, recording everything you consume and where for a week or so, can help you recognize sources of mindless or excess consumption and their relationship to your feelings and circumstances.

Be wary of “nutrition halos” — foods deemed healthful but loaded with calories, albeit from healthy fats. A friend who moved to California gained 25 pounds in a year eating avocados from the tree in her yard. A serving of avocado is ¼ cup. Same for nuts, which, along with air-popped corn, are my favorite snacks.

At the same time, Dr. Young and I recognize the dangers inherent in feeling deprived of cherished, not-so-good-for you foods. When I was shedding those 40 pounds, I included one small treat a day — a few tablespoons of ice cream, a small cookie, a slice of quick bread, or sliver of cake or pie — lest after weeks of no treats I break down and devour half a cake or quart of ice cream at one sitting.

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While it can be convenient to fill a plastic baggie with dried fruit, the recommended serving for raisins, for example, is 1/4 cup (110 calories), which roughly equals the size of an Altoids tin, says Zanini.

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When it comes time to cook dinner, remember that a serving of spaghetti is only 2 ounces (200 calories). Think of it as a side dish rather than the main meal. Expressed in terms of the dry stalks you pull from the box, the handful should be the circumference of a U.S.

quarter, says Farrell. As for cooked spaghetti, the 2-ounce side-dish serving size would cover roughly the area of a beverage coaster. Most people double these amounts, Farrell adds. To avoid temptation, try one of these healthy alternatives to pasta.

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The correct amount of this healthy starch is a small spud (about 130 calories), says Farrell, which is approximately the dimensions of a travel tissue pack. “Restaurants often serve potatoes that measure from your wrist to your fingertip, which is double what you should have,” she explains.

How can I manage portions when eating out?

In a Cornell University

study

published in

PLoS One

, researchers observed people at two separate breakfast buffet lines that featured the same seven items: cheesy eggs, potatoes, bacon, cinnamon rolls, low-fat granola, low-fat yogurt, and fruit. One line presented the foods from healthiest to least-healthy, while the other line had the order reversed. Regardless of which line they passed through, more than 75% of diners put the first food they saw on their plates; the first three foods they encountered in the buffet made up two-thirds of all the foods they added to their plate. So take a stroll around the buffet or dinner table before you serve yourself, suggests Young.

Food or beverage 1980s (calories) Today (calories)
Turkey sandwich 320 calories 820 calories
French fries 210 calories 610 calories
Bagel 140 calories 350 calories
Slice of pizza 500 calories 850 calories
Soda 85 calories 250 calories

Source: NYC Health

There are lots of easy ways to keep portion sizes under control, it just takes a little forethought and a handful of tricks that will help out a lot.

  • Not sure what a portion size should be? Make sense of portion sizes by using hand symbols for portions.
  • Learn to read food labels. Pay attention to the number of servings contained in the package, then note the calorie and fat content per serving. If, for example, the label on a large muffin indicates that one serving has 250 calories and 10 grams of fat, and the muffin contains two servings, then you’ll have eaten 500 calories and 20 grams of fat from that muffin.
  • ŸCompare marketplace portions to recommended serving sizes. If you eat a marketplace portion of something, compare its size to what’s recommended by the USDA. For example, a standard bagel is two ounces and counts as two servings from the bread/cereal/grain food group. A marketplace bagel weighs nearly six ounces and counts as six servings. A pasta dinner from your favorite restaurant might add up to six or more servings of grains as well. If you eat a 12-ounce piece of meat, you’re consuming three ounces more than your whole days’ recommendation!
  •  Repackage supersize bags. Supersize bags may be more economical, but they can also encourage you to overeat. If you buy huge bags of chips or pretzels, for example, repackage the contents into smaller containers.
  • Share a meal. Order an appetizer and split one main course with another person when you go out for a meal. Share an order of fries with everyone at your table. Order one dessert and some extra forks. Four people can enjoy a few bites of a decadent dessert and it’s probably just the right amount!  
  • Eat half or less. If you’re not sharing a meal, eat half of what you’re served and take the rest home to enjoy as another meal. You might even ask for the box when your plate arrives and pack it up right away.
  • Use a smaller plate. At home, serve your meals on smaller plates. Your plate will look full, but you’ll be eating less.
  • Slow down and skip second helpings. Eat one reasonable serving and don’t immediately go back for seconds. Give yourself time to digest and serve yourself more food if you are still hungry. 

Remember, the more portion control you practice, the more you can eat all of your favorite foods!

1Young LR, Nestle M. J Am Diet Assoc. 2003;103(2):231-4. 

2Wu HW, Sturm R. Public Health Nutrition 2013;16(1)87-96. 

A portion is how much food you choose to eat at one time, whether in a restaurant, from a package, or at home. A serving, or serving size, is the amount of food listed on a product’s Nutrition Facts, or food label (see Figure 1 below).

Different products have different serving sizes, which could be measured in cups, ounces, grams, pieces, slices, or numbers—such as three crackers. A serving size on a food label may be more or less than the amount you should eat, depending on your age, weight, whether you are male or female, and how active you are. Depending on how much you choose to eat, your portion size may or may not match the serving size.

Figure 1. Updated Nutrition Facts Label

Graphic of “Nutrition Facts” label and how it’s different from previous label
Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration

As a result of updates to the Nutrition Facts label in May 2016, some serving sizes on food labels may be larger or smaller than they had been before (see Figure 2 below). For instance, a serving size of ice cream is now 2/3 cup, instead of 1/2 cup.

A serving size of yogurt is 6 ounces rather than 8 ounces. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) changed some food and beverage serving sizes so that labels more closely match how much people actually eat and drink.

Figure 2. FDA Serving Size Changes

Graphic of new food serving sizes and how they have changed
Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration

How many calories you need each day to lose weight or maintain your weight depends on your age, weight, metabolism, whether you are male or female, how active you are, and other factors. For example, a 150-pound woman who burns a lot of calories through intense physical activity, such as fast running, several times a week will need more calories than a woman about the same size who only goes for a short walk once a week.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 can give you an idea of how many calories you may need each day based on your age, sex, and physical activity level. Use the Body Weight Planner tool to make your own calorie and physical activity plans to help you reach and maintain your goal weight.

Photo of a man reading cartons in a grocery store
How many calories you need each day depends on your age, weight, metabolism, sex, and physical activity level.

The FDA food label is printed on most packaged foods. The food label is a quick way to find the amount of calories and nutrients in a certain amount of food. For example, reading food labels tells you how many calories and how much fat, protein, sodium, and other ingredients are in one food serving.

In addition to checking food labels for calories per serving, keeping track of what you eat—as well as when, where, why, and how much you eat—may help you manage your food portions. Create a food tracker on your cellphone, calendar, or computer to record the information.

The Sample Food Tracker in Figure 4 below shows what a 1-day page of a food tracker might look like. In the example, the person chose fairly healthy portions for breakfast and lunch, and ate to satisfy hunger. The person also ate five cookies in the afternoon out of boredom rather than hunger.

By 8 p.m., the person was very hungry and ate large portions of high-fat, high-calorie food at a social event. An early evening snack of a piece of fruit and 4 ounces of fat-free or low-fat yogurt might have prevented overeating less healthy food later.

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