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Useful Portion Control Tips

Portion Size Basics:

Knowing the appropriate portion size for various aliments helps you recognize how many calories you put into your body, prior to ingesting those calories.

As you know, there are 2 facets to calorie intake:

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  1. The qualitative aspect, i.e. what types of foods we eat. Some types of foods, even in small amounts, may bring in a whopping amount of calories - so our task is to learn to identify those foods and avoid them. To find out more, see our chapter on Major Food Offenders.

  2. The quantitative aspect, i.e. the serving size. This is extremely important in a weight control program, since even healthy foods can become "dietary offenders" if consumed in excessive amounts.

Below, we are going to zero in on this quantitative aspect. Concretely, the question that concerns us is: How much food represents an acceptable portion size? And how is one supposed to know that? In other words, how can we tell if we are overeating?
To answer this question, each one of us needs to develop an internal monitor – to be able to gauge portions at a glance and decide whether they are acceptable or too large. This only seems difficult. In fact, it really isn't. Apply the method below, and your internal portion monitor will develop quickly and effortlessly. (And let me stress that it is necessary to develop this monitor. There really isn't any way around it. Because in the end, we live in a world filled with food temptations, and if we can't control them, they will control us.) This being said, here's how to gauge your portion size:

  1. Entree Serving Size:

    In the freezer aisle of your grocery store, you will find a section entitled "Frozen entrees". You will notice plenty of boxed entrees from various producers. Among these, look for the following brand names:
    • Healthy Choice
    • Smart Ones
    • Stouffer's Lean Cuisine

    These 3 brands offer reasonably healthy foods in appropriate portions. You can use this fact both to satisfy your hunger and to educate yourself about proper portion size.
    Each brand offers a variety of entrees, so choose whatever entree strikes your fancy. As you enjoy your meal, estimate the approximate size of the dish and remember this serving size. This is an appropriate portion size for a weight loss program.

    And one more thing: Before opening the box, remember to take a look at the nutrition facts label (usually found on the back of the box). What you will see is this:

    • Serving Size: 1 Meal
    • Amount per Serving: ... Calories (this number will usually be between 200 and 400 calories per meal)
      (Note: For Smart Ones entrees, the calorie amount per meal can be as low as 140.
    • Total Fat - in gram
    • Saturated Fat - in gram (usually, this number will no higher than 3 gram.)
    • Cholesterol - in milligram (usually, this number will be no higher than 40 mg.)
    • Sodium - in milligram
    • Total Carbohydrate - in gram
    • Dietary Fiber - in gram
    • Sugars - in gram (usually, this number will be no higher than 7 gram.)
      Note: You may notice that the sum of" Dietary Fiber" and "Sugars" is lower than the "Total Carbohydrate" amount. Don't worry, this is not an error. The difference is made up by complex carbohydrates (starches and glycogen),which are usually good carbs with lower glycemic index, and are not specifically mentioned on the label.
    • Protein content - in gram

    In the list above, the most important numbers are the Saturated Fat and the Sugars - so remember these numbers:

    • Saturated Fat up to 3 gram, and
    • Sugars up to 7 gram

    If you find these numbers on the nutrition label of an entree, that entree should be ok for your weight loss program. By and large, all 3 entree brands above fulfill this condition, but it never hurts to check the nutrition label.
    Another important fact to look for on the nutrition label is Trans Fat, which should always be zero. It it's not, don't buy the respective food item. Trans fat puts you at risk for cardiovascular disease and accelerated weight gain.
    As far as cholesterol, you want it to be as low as possible - in any case below 50 mg per serving.

    Other considerations: A high amount of fiber (2-3 gram or more) is a bonus, and so is a high amount of protein (10 gram or more). Food items that fulfill these conditions are especially beneficial in weight control.

    Returning to entree portion size, here's what I recommend: For a while, treat yourself to all frozen entrees that strike your fancy and satisfy these nutritional requirements:
    • calorie count between 200-400 per entree
    • saturated fat content below 3 gram
    • cholesterol content below 40-50 mg
    • trans fats zero
    • sugars below 7 grams

    During this process, pay attention to the portion size of each entree: It is an acceptable portion for the respective dish. So, when all said and done, you will have learned to recognize acceptable portion sizes for a number of dishes you like. And, you will see that the amount of food from one dish to another doesn't vary that much.

    Armed with this knowledge, you can now start creating your own home-cooked meals. For further details, check out our healthy cooking tips. And as always, remember portion size: One portion of your home-cooked meal should be about equal to one portion of the frozen entrees above-mentioned.

    Please note: When dealing with fast food, pizza, French fries, or other deep-fried or oily dishes, all the above-mentioned facts regarding portion size go right out the window. In that instance, the only fact you can be sure of is this: A surprisingly small portion of the respective food is guaranteed to bring in a surprisingly high calorie content. (For example: A small serving of McDonald's French fries, which is really no more than a handful of fries, brings in 210 calories – same as an entire 'Smart Ones' entree.)

  2. fresh-fruit
  3. Fruit Serving Size:

    For Fresh Fruit:
    • Go with the rule-of-one whenever possible. For example: one apple, one orange, one mango fruit, one pear, one banana, etc.
    • Otherwise, go with half a cup (4 oz) of grapes, cherries, or plums;
      or one cup (8 oz) of raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, watermelon, honeydew melon, cantaloupe, sliced pineapple, kiwi, or apricots.
    • Exception: Nuts should not be measured by the cup, but rather by the ounce, since they are fairly caloric. 1 oz of nuts (whole, not ground) constitutes an adequate portion. This applies to walnuts, pecans, peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, cashews, macadamia, etc.
      All the nuts mentioned above contain high amounts of unsaturated (heart-healthy) fats, and are beneficial for a weight loss diet if consumed in adequate portions.
      Coconuts (meat and milk) are best avoided, since unlike other types of nuts they contain high amounts of saturated fat.

    For Canned Fruit:
    • Respect the portion size indicated on the can.
    • Choose canned fruit with little or no added sugar. Check out the nutrition label to confirm this: Sugars below 10-12 gram per serving are ok. We are more lax on the sugar requirement in this case (as compared to other food products, where we want sugars to below 7 grams), since most of the sugars in fruit are represented by fructose, which has a much lower glycemic index than glucose (about one fifth the glycemic index of glucose).
    • Tip: Canned fruit with no added sugar can be sweetened to taste using a zero-calorie sweetener such as "Equal" or "Splenda". Taste-wise, there is no significant difference between these sweeteners and regular sugar, and a lot of unnecessary calories can be avoided this way.
    • Canned fruit that contain added sugar are borderline acceptable if the recommended serving size is respected. For example, one serving size (one small can) of 'Del Monte Diced Pears' brings in 80 calories and 19 grams of sugars. You can observe right away that the sugars are about double what we would like them to be. However, about half these sugars are fructose, and the total calorie amount is reasonably small. All in all, if no more than one serving is consumed, this is an acceptable food.

  4. Vegetables Serving Size:

    For Fresh Vegetables:
    • Go with the rule-of-one whenever possible. For example: One tomato, one cucumber, one medium potato, etc.
    • Exceptions: Avocado (one tablespoon), Eggplant (one tablespoon after preparation), Green Leafy Vegetables (one plateful).

    For Canned Vegetables:
    • As a general rule, go with the serving size indicated on the container. However: Most canned vegetables are quite low in calories and also low in saturated fats and sugars. As such, if you must exceed the recommended portion size on anything in your diet, this is the product to do it.

  5. Processed Foods Serving Size:

    Rule of thumb:
    Read the nutrition facts on the package label: They tell you the recommended portion size (serving size), how many calories it brings, and how many portions (servings) are in the package. Try to stick with the recommendations of the manufacturer: I.e., eat no more than the recommended serving size at a time.

    Sometimes these instructions are deliberately vague and confusing. For instance, some items such as cheese indicate the serving size in grams, and the number of servings in the package as "variable". The total weight of the package is also given (usually in pounds, to make the whole thing more confusing). Anyway, after the appropriate conversion of units, one can calculate the number of servings in the package. Oftentimes, when doing this calculation, it becomes apparent that the volume of each serving in the package is quite small (in other words, the calorie content per volume of food is quite high).
    Other items to beware of are prepackaged Peanuts, Chex Mix, and other similar products. The nutrition label tells you the serving size (e.g. 39 pieces of Planters peanuts), and the number of calories per serving (in this case 170 calories, which may seem reasonable). It is not until you look at the number of servings in the can (9 servings per can) that you realize: One portion size of Planters peanuts is rather small, and it's fairly easy to exceed it. And should you end up eating one third of the can in one helping (which can easily happen while sitting in front of the TV and munching away), you would have ingested a 500 calorie "snack". In other words, you would have eaten one quarter of your total daily calories.

  6. Sweets Serving Size:

    I have decided to make this a separate section, since people who have a "sweet tooth" may find it particularly difficult to stay on a healthy diet. The problem is, sweets usually contain large amounts of sugars (bad carbs of high glycemic index), which cause a high swing in blood sugar levels. This leads to high insulin secretion, followed by a rapid decrease in blood sugar levels, which is usually experienced as hunger and/or fatigue. Exposing one's body to these abrupt up-and-down glycemic swings makes it difficult to control hunger and usually leads to overeating.
    So what's a sweet-aholic to do about this? Simply forget sweets?
    Well, being a sweet-aholic myself, my answer is implicitly biased. Still, I believe that life shouldn't be that cruel. What we can and should do is simply apply common sense. This means, limit the number of "trespasses" and limit portion size. Also, whenever possible, revert to zero-calorie sweeteners such as 'Splenda' and 'Equal' (especially for cooking, and also when choosing your soft drinks).
    Now let's say, for instance, you are looking at a chocolate cake or a fruit pie. How big a slice should you have? In my estimate, less than 1/8th of the cake or pie. And you should try to do this less than 3 times a week. When choosing your cake or pie, you should also consider whether it has high saturated fat and cholesterol content. If so, pick another pie. (Frosting and butter-cream can bring in high amounts of saturated fat, and the egg yolks in dough can bring in plenty of cholesterol. As such, a fruit pie may represent an advantage over a butter-cream layer cake.)


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