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Managing Portion Sizes Helps Maintain a Healthy Diet

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If you are watching your diet, you probably know that how much you eat is as important as what you eat. The challenge is figuring out how much is “much”, because you may be eating more than you think you are. The good news is that understanding and managing food portions can help you solve this problem.

The information below explains portions and servings, and it includes tips to help you eat just enough to get essential nutrients and maintain a healthy weight.

Understanding the Labels

Serving size is a measured amount of food or drink, such as two slices of cheese or one cup of milk. Different products have different serving sizes. Sizes can be measured in cups, ounces, grams, pieces, slices, or numbers. Portion size is the recommended amount for a specific food group. Depending on how much you choose to eat, your portion size may or may not match the serving size.

Most food products have nutrition facts labels that detail the number of servings in a container. However, a serving size on a label is not a recommendation of how much you should eat or drink. For example, if the label on a 23-ounce can of soup shows 130 calories per serving, you need to know how many servings the can contains. If it contains three servings – and you want to limit calories from that item to 260 – then the correct portion size is two servings or less.

Managing portions is not just a matter of counting calories. Paying attention to food labels also helps you watch your intake of sugar, sodium, and fat. In most cases, downsizing portions is necessary, because serving sizes usually are larger than recommended.

Tips for Downsizing Your Portions

  • Read the label: Most food products have nutrition facts labels that can help you identify the number of servings in a container.
  • Use the right tools: Try portioning out foods with measuring cups and spoons to see what the serving size looks like. Small plates and bowls can make the portion sizes appear larger and help you feel full more quickly.
  • Eat from a plate, not a package: It's easy to eat more than one serving when eating straight from the box or bag. Before eating, portion out your food and put the container away to limit portions.
  • Skip the upsize: Restaurant drive-through portions often are larger than the recommended size. Also, it can seem like a better value to pay 50 cents extra for a larger size. Choose the amount you know you can eat at one sitting without feeling too full.
  • Share/take home: Portion size can be a problem when eating out. Try ordering 1-2 small appetizers instead of a large entrée. You also can share an entrée with a friend, or eat just half and ask your server for a takeout container.

Recommended Portions by Food Group

Follow this guide to know how much of different types of foods you should eat to get the nutrients you need.

  • Vegetables — 2 to 3 cups
  • Fruits — 1½ to 2 cups
  • Grains — 5 to 8 ounces
  • Dairy — 3 cups (fat-free or low-fat)
  • Protein foods — 5 to 6½ ounces
  • Oils — 5 to 7 teaspoons

Handy Guide to Healthy Portions

Even when you can’t control the amount of food served to you in restaurants and other places, you can control the portions you actually eat. When dining away from home, it’s unlikely that you’ll have measuring tools to determine portion sizes. Nutritionists created a useful guide to help you estimate how much food you are eating. Try these “rule-of-thumb” estimates when you dine out:

  • Clenched fist = 1 cup of pasta, rice, mashed potatoes, or apple sauce
  • Size of your palm = estimate of meat portion
  • One handful = estimate for nuts or fruit portions
  • Two handfuls = vegetables portion
  • Thumb = cheese
  • Tip of thumb = oils, butter, mayonnaise

One Plan (Mostly) Fits All

It’s important to note that portion control varies from person to person. Your genetics, body type, and lifestyle play a major part in the amounts and types of nutrients you should eat. For example, a 140-pound woman whose main physical activity is a short walk each week needs fewer calories than a woman of the same size who runs or exercises several times a week.

These basic guidelines for determining how much should go on your plate are estimates that have been shown to help most people control their diet. For more detailed or customized plans, talk to your primary care doctor or a registered dietitian.

Click here to learn more about nutrition and weight loss services at UAB Medicine.