Employee & Community Health

Right-size portions for healthy eating

3/30/2016 by Michaeleen Burroughs, RDN, LD

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How much you eat is as important as what you eat if you're trying to lose weight and keep it off. 

That heap of pasta on your plate is a portion, but it's probably not a serving size, which is a precise, recommended amount of food measured by cups, ounces or tablespoons. 

You'll find service sizes on the nutrition labels of a vast range of products from applesauce to bacon to Cheddar cheese. Remember to check the number of services per container. Toaster pastries come two to a pack, but a serving is just one. A serving of Doritos® is 11 chips, not the whole bag. Reading labels can provide information that will help you save hundreds of unwanted calories in a day.

'See' your portions

Portion size - the amount on your plate - matters. Research has shown that people consistently eat more food when offered larger-sized portions. But you don't need to memorize a food list or carry around measuring cups to get a better handle on serving sizes. 

Instead, use common visual cues to remind yourself of appropriate serving sizes. How? Many foods match up to everyday objects. Some one-serving examples include: 

  • Baseball = medium pepper, 1/2 cup green beans, 1/3 cup tomato sauce
  • Hockey puck = 1/2 bagel, 1/2 cup pasta, 1/2 cup dry cereal
  • Deck of cards = 3 ounces meat or fish
  • Dice (3-4) = 1 ounce hard cheese

Click here for more serving-size photos and information.

Tips for right-sizing portions

  • Pour the amount of cereal you usually eat into a bowl, measure it and compare it to the recommended serving size. Do this for some of your go-to foods so you get used to seeing what the correct portion looks like. 
  • Until you get the hang of portion sizes, consider buying a plate divided into portions for each of the food groups. Or when filling your plate, keep in mind that:
    • Half of your plate should be fruits and vegetables. Good choices include spinach, carrots, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, cucumbers, beets and peppers. 
    • Grains fill another section. Choose brown rice, whole-wheat pasta or whole-wheat tortillas. 
    • Protein completes the plate. Healthy options include chicken or turkey without the skin, fish and other seafood, beans, soy and lean cuts of beef and pork. 
    • Round out your meal with an 8-ounce glass of fat-free milk. 
  • Use smaller plates to trick your eye (and brain) into thinking portions are larger. 
  • Dish proper portion sizes onto plates int he kitchen rather than passing food family style. 
  • Eyeball the size of your portion at a restaurant. Share your meal or ask for a to-go box, then package up the take-home portion before you start eating. 
  • Use snack-size zippered storage bags to portion foods like crackers, cereal, chips and nuts. Make it a part of your routine when putting away groceries. Then when a snacking urge hits, you'll have the right-sized snack portion at hand. 
  • Tell family, friends and co-workers that you're watching your portion sizes, then share what strategies you're using to give them ideas too - and add a bit of accountability to your own efforts. 

Michaeleen Burroughs, RDN, LD, has worked at Employee and Community Health (ECH) in Family Medicine for 20 years. She currently helps patients at Mayo Family Clinics Northwest, Southeast and Kasson, and Baldwin Family Medicine and Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine (CPAM). Her areas of interest are diabetes and child and adult weight management.