At home and away, our meals have all become supersized. And so have we! Find out why how much you eat is just as important as what you eat in your diet for controlling weight.
By Kristen Stewart
Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
Over one-third of U.S. adults — that's more than 72 million people — are now considered obese. What we eat certainly contributes to America's obesity epidemic, but how much we eat and our lack of portion control may be even more important factors. The bottom line: We are eating too much!
With free soda refills and supersized French fries lurking around every corner, it's no wonder we have trouble controlling how much we eat. But if you want to control your weight, you must exhibit portion control.
What Is Portion Control?
A portion is just another word for the serving or amount of a food. The actual serving size of any given food you eat, whether you make it at home or order it in a restaurant, may be many times the portion amount suggested by United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines. That means you may easily be eating more calories than you think and more than you need to maintain a healthy weight. Too much of any food, even if you're eating a diet of only healthy food, can cause weight gain.
Portion control means knowing the size of an average portion of common foods and, to avoid gaining weight, making sure that your portions don't add up to more food than you need to eat every day. "Portion sizes will determine the calorie content of a meal. The more you eat, the more calories you consume," says Joan Salge Blake, RD, clinical associate professor in the Department of Health Sciences at Boston University in Boston, Mass. "When trying to maintain a healthy weight, you need to make sure that you don't consume more calories daily than you need."
Portion Control: Sizing Up Total Daily Portions
According to the USDA, current daily recommendations for a 2,000-calorie diet include:
5 1/2 ounces of lean meat or 1 1/4 cups cooked beans
2 1/2 cups of vegetables
2 cups of fruit
3 cups of low-fat or fat-free milk or the equivalent dairy products
3+ ounces of whole-grain products
Keep in mind these are the total amounts of food from the major food groups eaten per day, not per meal, and plan accordingly. If you eat a small steak or a large chicken breast at a meal, you may have all the meat you need for the entire day. Also, a 2,000-calorie diet isn't appropriate for everyone; that may be too much for you. How many calories you need to consume per day depends on your existing weight, height, and how active you are. To find out how many calories per day you need, visit the USDA's food pyramid Web site to get a more personalized breakdown of portion sizes right for you.
Portion Control: Recognizing Portion Sizes
It's not practical to think that you can weigh every food you put on your plate. What you can do, however, is learn to recognize what key portion sizes look like, so help you know the right amount to serve yourself or eat at a restaurant.
- Use the same size plates and bowls at each meal so that you can get use to what proper portion sizes look like on each dish.
- Develop visual cues by matching portion sizes to familiar items.
- A three-ounce serving of meat is the size of a deck of cards or a bar of soap.
- A medium potato is about equal to a computer mouse.
- A half-cup of rice would just about fill a regular-sized cupcake wrapper.
- One ounce of cheese is about the size of four dice.
- Sandwich meat should be equivalent to the thickness of one standard slice of whole wheat bread.
- Vegetables should be twice the thickness of the meat.
- Eyeball food portions based on the amount of room they take up on a dinner plate. For example, on an 8- to 10-inch plate, half of the plate should be covered with vegetables, one-quarter with a starch like rice or a potato, and one-quarter with a protein. The plate should not be overflowing and you should see some of the plate between the servings.
Controlling portion size when eating out can be a challenge because, in general, restaurant servings are considerably bigger than recommended portion sizes.
"Depending on the fat and water content of different foods, you could eat twice as much as you think or half as much [when eating out]. Also, it depends on the size of the plate, how much cheese is hidden inside the dish and so on," says Susan B. Roberts, PhD, professor in the nutrition and psychiatry departments at Tufts University in Boston and author of The Instinct Diet (Workman). "Even people with a PhD in nutrition like me can't really guess from looking at a plate of food we didn't cook how many calories it has in it!"
However, there are ways to manage portion size when eating out. Lona Sandon, RD, assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas offers these tips:
- Choose from the children's menu, if the restaurant lets you. "Just because it says 12 and under does not mean you cannot order from it," says Sandon.
- Have an appetizer or salad for your entrée.
- Order a la carte from the side items on the menu rather than a main dish.
- Request lunch portion sizes at dinner, since lunch portions are generally smaller.
- Ask to have a to-go box brought with your meal and before you start eating, put half of what is on your plate in the box to take home for another meal. This is particularly good to do with deli sandwiches, which are almost always twice the size a person needs, says Sandon.
These are excellent! We all have to travel or go out to eat sometime. Hey, don´t we all like to go out to eat. We should be able to, and still enjoy ourselves. These are ideas I am going to use the next time we travel.