baby steps | portion awareness

As with “meal plan,” the words “portion control” can strike panic in anyone on a health journey.

It brings up visions of weighing and measuring every BLT (bite-lick-taste) that goes into our mouths, and who’s got the time for that?

I personally don’t like the word “control” to begin with—it feels tight, constricting, and something to be rebelled against.

So when I talk to my clients about portions, especially if they have negative feelings about the track-every-calorie-in-and-out approach to health, I normally introduce one simple concept and suggest some loose guidelines.

portion size

The US government has some ideas about what a healthy portion of foods is—although they’ve ceded a lot of control over that to the food manufacturers.

So let’s consider this: a 1.25 lb box of dry cereal (not a particularly sugary one) tells me that there are 13 portions inside. And furthermore it gives me nutrition facts for 1 portion of just the cereal and 1 portion of cereal + 1/2 c of skim (ew, AKA “blue”) milk.

Know any teenage boys? If so, you know that a large proportion of them will eat 1/2 the box for breakfast with a 1/2 gallon of milk. Then they’ll finish off the remaining halves for an after-school snack. (And go on to eat a full dinner.)

How about pasta? A 12-oz box of dry pasta purports to serve 6. When’s the last time you went to an Italian restaurant in America and got a 1-cup serving of cooked pasta (about what 2 oz dry will become when cooked)?

Whether at home or in a restaurant, I’m betting you got more like 4 cups—and I know 3 members of my family of can easily polish off an entire box without anything left over.

And how about salad dressing? One tablespoon normally equals a serving. How much were you given (and how much did you use) last time you got a salad with the dressing on the side? I’m betting it’s closer to an ounce (2 T) or even more.

portion distortion

We may note what a portion size is—and we sure don’t pay attention to it when we eat! We Americans definitely suffer from what’s known as “portion distortion.”

What’s the best example of this I know?

In a 1950s cookbook that shall remain nameless, there’s a recipe for brownies baked in an 8″ x 8″ pan and cut into 6 x 6 squares: 36 brownies, 1 brownie = 1 serving.

In the late 1980s edition of the same cookbook, there’s an identical recipe for brownies baked in the same size pan—and cut into 4 x 4 squares: 16 brownies, 1 brownie = 1 serving. Slightly less than twice the size of the original brownie.

Well, at least the editors were being a bit more realistic?

raise your hand

So I don’t have a lot of faith in the government- or the manufacturer- or editor-designated portion sizes.

Instead, I recommend you use your hand to estimate a reasonable portion size. Most of us have this tool readily available–and it has the added advantage of being sized to fit our bio-individual bodies!

(Okay, you might cry foul since I am only 5’2″ and yet my paws are huge. But let’s waive that point.)

Here’s how estimating portion size works using your hand:

  • 1 portion of protein (animal or plant) = the size and thickness of your palm
  • 1 portion of carbs (unprocessed, please) = what will fit in the palm of your hand when you cup it
  • 1 portion of vegetables = an amount the size of your fist; except for raw leafy greens—use 2 fists for 1 portion
  • 1 portion of fat (the beneficial ones only, please) = the size of your thumb’s first joint (from tip to the first knuckle down)

mix it up

We’ve generally moved beyond the idea that a balanced meal consists of 1 portion of protein, 1 portion of carbs, 1 portion of veggies. I encourage my clients to play around with how they balance out their macros (proteins, fats, carbs). We are bio-individual, and what works for weight loss or gain or maintenance will vary by person and change over the course of a life.

The general suggestion I make is that every meal you eat contain a little bit of protein or fat along with a whole lotta vegetables.

use your eyes (and your phone)

How many vegetables? I ask my clients to aim for 50–75% of each plate to be veggies—a rainbow of them.

The best way to estimate that? Fill your plate, then look down on it from above. If 1/2 of 3/4 of the “pie” is vegetables, you’re doing great. A bonus tip: use a smaller plate rather than a huge dinner-sized one if you’re aiming for weight loss.

Weighing and measuring can become an obsession that leads to a lot of data and not much action. Instead, I ask clients to take a photo of each plate and log that instead. Most of us have phones with cameras that can do that.

pay attention

Interested in being more aware of your portion sizes as a way to get healthy? Don’t just slash your portions and hope for the best.

If the scale is your friend, you will likely see some weight loss. If the scale is your enemy, pay attention to other health indicators: how do you feel physically, mentally, emotionally, and energetically/spiritually?

Try journaling about your symptoms rather than logging food and exercise—you can download a simple template here.

make the connection

This is the sixth challenge in a 12-part series that will run for all of 2022: every month, I’ll share a small, simple, sustainable shift to make on your way to healthier food and lifestyle choices. By the end of the year, the difference in your health will amaze you!

“A YEAR?!? But that’s so long,” you may be thinking. Remember: a journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step.

Let me ask you this: how long have you been making poor food and lifestyle choices? I’ll bet it’s been more than a year, maybe even more than a decade….

And those poor choices have resulted in poor health.

The good news is that you can reverse the downward trend by making better choices. And the only way those will stick is if you make them one baby step at a time.

Pay attention to your portions—and how you feel—through June and beyond—then come back for July’s Baby Step to Health! You can check in on the group chat for inspiration and support.

Want to make sure you don’t miss a single challenge? Join my email list.