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