A person holding a bowl of food on top of a table.

Healthy Eating and Portion Control

How to Fill Your Plate and Tackle Portion Distortion

Since the 1960s, we have been eating more food (quantity on the plate) and moving our bodies less, creating a calorie reserve – otherwise known as an increase of body fat. Now, that is a very simplistic view of what contributes to obesity, and I went into one dimension of that last month (quick recap: it’s way more than calories in/calories out), but it is undeniable that HOW much we put on our plates, or how much food you eat, does impact the very complicated weight problem so many of us face. 

Portion sizes have increased for a lot of different reasons. Our actual dinner plate sizes have increased causing us to want to fill that space. Our visual cues (amounts that you think are sufficient to eat per sitting) have increased in the U.S. Our restaurant portions sometimes can provide double or triple what the average person really needs at one time. This notion is called portion distortion, which is when you view large servings of foods as the norm. Portion distortion is one reason for weight gain and may impact weight loss.

What’s the Goal?

Food: For portions, the goal is to eat to satisfaction, not to overstuffed teddy bear. Just full, not stuffed. If eating this way, you’ll have to eat through the day (a good thing for metabolism) and that will equal eating about every three to four hours.

Water: for the body to work properly, and NOT mix up hunger and full cues, you need to hydrate-especially in the Colorado dry climate. Shoot for ½ your body weight in ounces, and then more for exercise. A loose goal, but that gives you a feel for how much water your body needs.

Here’s How to Deal: 

Perfect Plate Size
I personally like to eat a lot of my meals on a salad-sized plate or in a medium sized bowl. I avoid the oversized dinner plates because I end up filling the plate and overeating. Once we acknowledge that we make delicious food, it is easy to understand why you might want to overeat that food. Eating on a smaller plate tricks you into thinking you’re eating plenty because the plate/bowl is full.

Knowing Your Servings
Knowing the number of servings you have made in a dish is helpful. That way, you can visually divvy up the dish into those servings, enjoying one serving per sitting-allowing you to plan when you’ll eat the remainder of the servings (lunch tomorrow?). Most recipes make 4 servings, so you can feed a family of four once, or a couple twice. Some couples like dinner two nights in a row, others like to take leftovers for lunch the next day. Either way, I LOVE the idea of watching servings and planning to have leftovers, which is great during a busy week.

Keep Track of Your Food
We do know that keeping track of what you eat and how much you eat does help you eat an appropriate amount of food per sitting. Also, we know (through nutrition studies) that people aren’t very good at estimating how much they eat. They regularly underestimate portion amounts and overeat per meal leading to a big disconnect.

Measure Portions with Your Hands
Visual cues can assist in figuring out how much food to eat. BUT, I am not a fan of the food scale. I find it time consuming, and it takes some pleasure out of eating. There is a better way, even if it is a little less accurate. You can use your hand/s and get close enough to help you assess how much is “just enough.”

The Hand Scale:

These guidelines are for per serving.

  • 1 serving of fiber-rich rice or pasta (1/2 a cup): one handful
  • 1 serving of meat (3-4 oz): a deck of cards, or your palm of your hand-only
  • 1 serving of meat (5-6 oz): your whole hand palm and fingers
  • 1 serving of green leafy vegetables (1 cup): 2 handfuls
  • 1 serving of vegetables (1/2 a cup): one handful
  • 1 teaspoon of olive oil: 1 fingertip
  • 2 tablespoons of peanut butter: an oversized serving from a regular tablespoon

Again, keeping track helps you better understand how much food you need to feel good after you eat. If you’ve got portion distortion, are not paying attention to this aspect of eating, it is difficult to correctly assess and change the amounts to feel better or get different results.

What should you be shooting for to feel good and balanced?

It depends.

But general broad guidelines is more veggies, at least half your plate, a good amount of healthy fat until you’re satisfied and have a feeling of being clear headed and balanced without being crave-y for sugar right after you eat, and enough protein to be full enough until your next meal, which should be about 3-4 hours after you ate last. Again, these are not hard and fast rules and depend on your body and circumstance, but this is a start.

To translate the above guidelines into daily servings, one might eat:

  • 2-3 servings of fruit
  • 1-2 servings of starchy veggies
  • 5 ish (or more) non-starchy veggies
  • 3-4 servings of protein
  • 4 servings healthy fat per day (sometimes fat/protein are combined, like in salmon)

And this might look like (for example):

Breakfast: Smoothie-unsweetened almond (little bit protein) , protein powder (good bit of protein), ¼ cup blueberries (fruit), handful of spinach (non-starchy veg), cinnamon (great blood sugar balancer), 2 tbsp hemp hearts (good protein/fat)–this makes a delicious smoothie formula.

Lunch: Big salad- (4-ish servings non-starchy veg) with (plant or animal) and a vinaigrette (healthy fat)

SnackHummus (fat and protein) with cucumber slices (non-starchy veg)

Dinner: Chicken with roasted/grilled veg-Protein (plant or animal) with roasted potatoes (starchy veg) and or broccoli.

Restaurant Portions
Restaurant portions are notoriously big. Your best strategy for eating for your body is to understand how hungry you are BEFORE your meal comes to the table. I like to use a scale of 1-5. 1=Just ate; 5=’flipping starving,’ blood sugar low, voraciously hungry, could eat the table. Hopefully, you are somewhere between a 2=mildly hungry and 4=hungry. If so, you’ll be looking for one medium sized plate of food. If the plate is oversized, leave some food. It’s as simple as that. You don’t have to eat everything that is served to you. Another strategy is to bring the leftover food home for afternoon snack (from lunch) or lunch the next day (from dinner). It’s a stupidly simple answer that takes practice, especially if you’ve grown up with the requirement to finish everything on your plate. Try it, using the rating scale really does help you eat to meet your body’s hunger.

We hope that helps you to better understand portions! For more guidance on meeting your personal wellness goals, book a free 20-minute consultation with Healthy Nest Nutrition owner Robin Hutchinson. See if our programs are right for you!