Portion Control and Serving Sizes: How Much Should You Eat?

By Gigi Amurao

Over the past decade or so, portion sizes have tripled in the U.S., a key factor in the devastating increase in obesity among children and adults. Supersized portions at fast-food restaurants have distorted what Americans consider a normal meal, and that affects how we eat at home. Larger portions mean more calories, which in turn can aid in packing on extra pounds. Coupled with a lack of exercise, it’s a recipe for obesity and poor health.

How can you manage your portions? If you want to take an exact approach, you can weigh and measure out your meals. Of course, many people don’t have the time or the willpower to weigh everything the way bodybuilders do, nor do they want to carry around a mini-scale.

The first step in portion control is to learn the correct serving size for specific foods. The serving size is the amount recommended as a single portion by the United States Department of Agriculture. You can usually find the serving size listed on the nutrition label. The portion is the actual amount you chose to consume. In most cases, people eat a much larger portion than the serving size simply because they don’t know any better or don’t bother to read the label. No wonder waistlines are increasing!

Serving sizes are measured in cups, ounces, grams, pieces, and slices, so you want to start by familiarizing yourself with standard portion sizes and measures. The serving size listed on the label or the size of the portion you eat may be more or less than the amount you should eat, which will depend on your age, weight, whether you’re a male or female, and how much you exercise. That’s a topic for another day.

For now, here are some easy steps for getting control of your food portions.

1) Learn to Read Food Labels

Pay attention to the number of servings contained in the package, and then note the calorie and fat content per serving. If, for example, the label on a package of cookies indicates that one serving has 200 calories and 8 grams of fat, and the package contains two servings, you should know that eating the entire package would cost you 400 calories and 16 grams of fat.

2) Measure Your Portions

Start measuring your food until you get a good feel for what a reasonable portion size is and can eyeball it. Buy a food scale, some measuring cups and measuring spoons, and start measuring the foods you eat at home until you feel comfortable estimating serving sizes without the tools. For example, one ounce of cooked white rice, the recommended serving size, is about a half cup, but the portion of rice you put on your plate, although it may look small, may be much bigger than that. You may think you’re eating only one serving of rice when it’s actually two or three. You can see how calories can add up.

3) Know Standard Serving Sizes, and Stick With Them

Over time, you will be able to eyeball portion sizes. When dining out, if you have a visual and can compare the portion in front of you with that, it’s easier to see how much to eat. For example, you can compare portions sizes with everyday objects. Below are some common portions and comparisons to objects, as suggested at www.mindfulbody.com:


1 serving protein (3 ounces of meat, fish or chicken) = a deck of cards

1 ounce meat = a matchbook

Starches and Grains

1 cup cereal flakes = a baseball

1 slice bread or a pancake = a CD case

½ cup cooked rice or pasta = a light bulb or tennis ball

1 serving baked potato = 1 cup = a medium-sized potato

3 cups popcorn = 3 baseballs

Vegetable, Fruits, and Dairy

1 small serving cooked vegetables, about a half cup = a baseball

1 serving vegetables = 1 cup chopped raw vegetables

1 serving dairy = 1 cup milk or 1 ounce cheese

Fats and Oils

1 tablespoon butter or spread = a poker chip

1 tablespoon salad dressing or mayonnaise = a poker chip

1 tablespoon oil = a poker chip

1 teaspoon oil or salad dressing = a matchbook

As a general rule of thumb:

1 cup = a baseball

½ cup = a light bulb

1 ounce, or 2 tablespoons = a golf ball

1 tablespoon = poker chip

3 ounces = a deck of cards or the inside of your palm

4) Repackage Supersized Bags of Food

When you shop in bulk, as I do, it’s easy to crack open a bag of chips and go to town; so buying the economy bag encourages overeating. Take the time to repackage the food into smaller containers or put individual serving into plastic bags. That can be time consuming, but I would rather take the time to repackage than increase my gym time to compensate.

5) Split Your Meals

When dining out, order an appetizer and a main course, and split the meal with another person. Sharing is caring, so share your food with everyone at your table.

6) The Doggie Bag Is Your Friend

If you’re not sharing with someone else, eat half of your plate and take the rest home, and—voilà—you have a second meal to enjoy.

7) Chew Slowly, and Stop When You’re Full

Always chew your food completely, and take time to savor it. Give yourself time to digest your food, and don’t keep eating after you’ve reached the feeling of fullness. Pay attention to your hunger cues: eat when you’re hungry, and stop when you’re full.

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8) Pack On the Veggies

Load your plate with green and other colorful vegetables. Veggies are low in calories and act as filler. Eating more of them is a good way to add volume to your meals without loading in tons of extra calories, and they’re great for helping you get your daily nutrients.

9) Drink Lots of Water

Water is essential for the body to function properly, but it can also help keep you feeling full. Drink 2 big glasses of water before every meal, and you’ll end up eating less.

10) Be Conscious of What You Put on Your Plate

Portion control takes effort. If losing weight is your goal, you need to pay attention to what goes into your mouth and how much of it. If you can practice some control and moderation in the foods you eat and combine that with consistent exercise and strength training, then for sure you will see the pounds melt away.

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