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Diabetes Forecast

The Healthy Living Magazine

Perfecting Portion Control

How to rightsize what you eat in a supersize world

By Tracey Neithercott , ,
Portion Control Made Easy
Visualize the right serving size while you cook, serve, and eat your food.
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Tip: Make your own beverage portion-control cups by using a permanent marker to note half-cup, 1-cup, and 2-cup servings on the outside of glasses. —Catherine Brown, MS, RD, LDN, CDE

It's no secret that portion sizes in America are out of control. Visit any restaurant chain and you'll find entrées better suited for a party—and not a party of one. Case in point: One national chain bills its combination of chicken parmesan, lasagna Bolognese, and chicken cannelloni as dinner for one even though it contains three different meals, 1,530 calories, 33 grams of saturated fat, and 96 grams of carbohydrate.

"With bigger portions, people eat more, even if they don't like it and even if they're no longer hungry," says Lisa Young, PhD, RD, CDN, adjunct professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University and author of the book The Portion Teller. The key to reining in those monstrous portions (and still enjoying foods you like) is first to understand correct serving sizes and know how to spot them.

The Plate Method
Of all the tactics for keeping portion sizes in check, the plate method is the easiest—hands down. For blood glucose and weight control, it works like this: Divide a 9-inch plate in half and cover one side with nonstarchy vegetables, such as broccoli or a leafy green salad. Cut the remaining half of your plate in two and fill one of the quarters with lean protein, such as chicken or fish. In the final quarter of your plate, serve a whole grain or starch, such as brown rice or sweet potato. For a truly balanced meal, enjoy a serving each of low-fat dairy and fruit.

By visually, if not actually, splitting up the food groups on your plate, you'll better notice an unbalanced meal, such as a piled-high plate of pasta with marinara sauce. With the plate method as a guide, you can cut the pasta to a quarter of its size, bulking up the meal with enough red peppers, broccoli, and tomatoes to fill half of the plate, and add some grilled chicken. "For some people [the plate method] is enough," says Catherine Brown, MS, RD, LDN, CDE, diabetes education coordinator at the University of Maryland Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology. "It's just modifying your environment so your portions are controlled."

The Practiced Eye
Another way to estimate portion sizes is to use everyday objects as reference points. "Very often I use the palm of a woman's hand [for 3 ounces of meat]," says Brown. She likens the size of a woman's fist to 1 cup of vegetables and half that size to a serving of fruit. Men can look for a portion that's a little smaller than their palm or fist. For more portion equivalents, see "Easy Comparisons" (below).

Of course, understanding portion sizes is only half the battle. You also need to serve yourself smaller portions. Eating chips from the bag or soup from the pot makes it almost impossible to determine when you've reached a serving. "When you're serving yourself at home, don't eat right out of the containers," says Alyse Levine, MS, RD, a registered dietitian in Los Angeles. "Rather, plate your food and then put the containers away so you don't go right back for seconds because they're at arm's reach." To make things easier, buy individual servings of food. Or, if you buy in bulk, store individual servings in resealable bags and containers.

Weighing the Evidence
To control your portions with precision, you can weigh food. It's not required, but some people—especially those on insulin who have a set insulin-to-carb ratio—like knowing the exact amount of each nutrient in their food. So instead of filling a quarter of your plate with half a bagel, you would weigh the bagel and use a food database to determine the calories, carb, fat, sodium, and other nutrients. Levine likes Livestrong.com's My Plate database, and Brown recommends CalorieKing.com.

Easy Comparisons
To estimate portion sizes, compare common serving sizes to objects that you know well.

3 ounces
of meat
= Deck of
cards
1 ounce of cheese = Four small dice
1 cup of cooked vegetables = Lightbulb
1 medium baked potato = Computer mouse
1 tablespoon of peanut butter = Marshmallow

Weighing food is also a good way to learn what portion sizes are supposed to look like. "Serving sizes for cereal are usually around three-fourths of a cup to 1 cup, and when you show people that in the office, they're surprised at how little that is," says Brown. She recommends measuring out what you believe is a portion and comparing it with an actual portion size to note the difference. When it comes to liquids or any food you can't weigh on a scale, measuring cups and spoons are invaluable. Seeing an exact tablespoon of olive oil compared with the amount you typically use will prevent you from overdoing it when dressing your salads.

If all this weighing and measuring sounds like extra work you don't have time to do, consider using the method only until you have a better grasp of correct portions of foods you eat regularly. Doing this will also help you guess the correct serving sizes when you're eating out. If you've measured out one-third cup of rice before, you'll know that the box of white stuff that comes with your Chinese takeout is large enough for four.

Downsized Dinnerware
Restaurant portion sizes aren't the only things that have ballooned in recent decades. Your dishes have been supersized, too. "The No. 1 thing that messes people up is that our bowls and dishes are so big that we cover them with more food," says Young. "Eating on a salad plate is a good idea." A smaller dish or bowl will automatically restrict your portions, making it easier for you to stick to single servings of food items.

Restaurant Savvy
When you're first trying to control your portion sizes, eating at home is a good idea. Not only can you get a feel for normal portions by using measuring cups or weighing food, but you can also control every aspect of a dish, including how much sauce or salad dressing is used. While some things are out of your hands when you eat out, there are steps you can take to make sure you're eating dinner for one.

For starters, check a restaurant's website for nutrition facts or, if necessary, request the information. You can search for dishes from chain restaurants in a food database like CalorieKing.com. Keep in mind that almost everything on the menu contains more than one serving, but combo meals can feed even more. Consider the trio of Italian food mentioned above. While it may be a great deal, it'll be hard to determine a single serving when presented with a giant plate containing, essentially, three dinners.

Even if you avoid combo meals, typical entrées are too big. A good solution: Split your meal with a friend. Because appetizers and à la carte or side items tend to be smaller than entrées, picking from those sections of the menu is another way to avoid eating too much. "The other thing is to kind of eyeball what you think are the appropriate portions before you start eating and actually pack up the rest to go," says Levine, "so it's not as tempting, it's not right in front of you."

IF IT FEELS as if the odds are stacked against you, take it slow. Start by measuring your meals at home before you tackle eating out. Keep a list of portion references (such as the one at right) as a reminder until you're comfortable estimating. "It comes down to: If you practice, you'll be much better eyeballing it when you're out," says Brown. "I always tell people, 'You know, I don't expect you to measure every meal, but if you have some practice at home, you'll be able to tell if it's the right portion.' "

 
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