Portion Sizes Matter When It Comes to a Healthy Diet

With obesity rates at an all-time high, we need to examine not only what we eat, but how much we eat. Odds are, your portion sizes are larger than they should be. Find out what your portions should look like and how to truly take charge of your plate.

portion sizes

Generally speaking, what are appropriate serving/portion sizes for adults? It’s smaller than you might think.

© Tifonimages | Dreamstime.com

You know how it works—calories from food provide us with energy, and if we don’t use that energy we store it as body fat. Research repeatedly confirms that larger food servings not only provide more calories but also have two other effects: They encourage us to eat more and to underestimate how much we’re eating. Controlling portion sizes is a small step that can make a big difference in the long run.

Let us first understand the difference between servings and portions.

Portion Sizes vs. Servings

portion sizes

When determining your meat or poultry portion size for one meal, nutritionists recommend comparing it to a deck of cards. (Photo credit: Kasia Biel | Dreamstime.com)

A typical meal plate contains different servings—portions of meat, vegetables, rice, grains, pasta, and so on.

Most nutrition experts suggest that a balanced meal will look something like this: a small cup of cooked whole grains (carbohydrates) taking up a quarter of your plate, about 8 ounces of either fish/meat/poultry (protein) taking up another quarter of your plate, and one to two cups of raw and/or cooked non-starchy vegetables (drizzled with a little fat, like olive oil or butter, as we need fat in our diet) taking up half your plate. As a matter of fact, there’s a “half your plate” campaign across North America right now encouraging everyone to eat more veggies.

Generally speaking, what are appropriate serving/portion sizes for adults? It’s smaller than you might think. The average meal should be 700 calories or less for adults and 600 or less for children.

Portion Sizes at Meal Time

portion sizes

Most nutrition experts suggest a balanced meal is a small cup of cooked whole grains, about eight ounces of either fish/meat/poultry, and one to two cups of raw and/or cooked non-starchy vegetables. (Photo credit: © Belier | Dreamstime.com)

Three meals a day means 2,100 calories or less for adults. Of course, that will depend on the person’s individual health needs, including their level of physical activity. What is a 700-calorie meal comprised of?  A simple meal consisting of soup, salad and a sandwich will typically provide approximately 700 calories. That will largely depend on what you put in your sandwich. For example, a peanut butter sandwich can tip the scale at more than 500 calories, based on how much peanut butter you spread on it. Thus, depending on your food choices, you may need to go easy on high-fat ingredients like nut butter.

In short, it’s not about counting calories, but trying to better understand your portion sizes. If you’d like to create a ‘buffet’ on your plate, go for it! Pick all the foods you like, but keep the helpings small.

Getting Your Portion Sizes Under Control

Where can you get carried away and not realize you’re exceeding a healthy portion limit?

A new study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, looked at meals served at 123 restaurants in three cities across America. It turns out that single-meal servings—excluding beverages, appetizers, and desserts—exceeded recommended calorie requirements for a single meal pretty much all the time! In fact, single meals sometimes exceeded the caloric requirements for an entire day.

portion sizes

This is what one 8-ounce serving of pasta looks like. (Photo credit: © Gianni Valletta | Dreamstime.com)

We’re sure you can relate. And with obesity being a national health crisis, we need to take a look at how much food we eat. Large portions are not the only problem in our diet; however, they’re an important factor. So when dining out, make a conscious decision to control your portions.

Managing the size of your portions is within your control. This basic guide, based on the American Heart Association’s portion recommendations, may help you get on the right track, if you’re not already. It can help you create reasonable (that’s the key word here!) portions for meals and snacks.

  • Roughly four servings of fruits per day is a good number, unless you’re dealing with diabetes or blood sugar problems (please see “Can Diabetics Eat Fruit?“). Berries are a good choice because they’re high in fiber. If you love strawberries, then eating about eight to 10 is counted as a day’s serving of fruits. A combination of 20 to 30 grapes, one apple, two medium-sized plums, and one small banana would also be considered four servings.
  • Five or more servings of vegetables per day is recommended; however, choose non-starchy varieties. One baked sweet potato (a starchy vegetable choice), two large celery stalks, baby carrots, one cup of cooked greens, and a medium-sized tomato are options. Keep the “half your plate” concept in mind.
  • Fish portions are generally half a pound of fish per person if it is a fillet; with the bones, it’s 1 pound. You can add or subtract an ounce for every 20 pounds of body weight.
  • Recommended meat and poultry portions vary, depending on your age, gender and weight. The American Heart and Stroke Association recommends eight to nine servings of protein per week sourced from eggs and lean poultry and meat. Their suggested serving size for meat and poultry is 3 ounces, which is about the size of a deck of cards. (You might want to reconsider the double-patty burger!)
  • When it comes to dairy, 1 cup of yogurt or milk is considered one serving. If it’s cheese, then 1.5 ounces is considered one serving, according to American Heart Association.
  • Grains should be a minimum of six and maximum of eight servings per day. This will also depend on whether you have any health conditions, such as diabetes, since grains are high in carbohydrates which convert to glucose. One slice of whole grain bread or half cup of cooked rice/pasta is considered as one serving.
  • Nuts and seeds should be limited to four to five servings per week. Keep in mind that they’re very high in calories. Your portions should be quite small—1/3 of a cup per day or less. Two tablespoons of seeds is considered one serving.
  • Half a cup of legumes, such as beans or peas, is considered one serving.

Please note, all of these suggestions are for people who consume an average of 2,100 calories per day.

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Lisa Cantkier

Lisa Cantkier is a nutritionist, educator, and writer who specializes in living well with food allergies and special diets. She enjoys learning about and sharing the latest research findings on … Read More

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