food journal

Al Perkins teaches portion control

If you’ve followed me for a while, you know that in addition to being a health coach, I have a side hustle that used to be my full-time job and that I still adore—from a bit of a distance since I’m now a part-time contractor and mostly work from home.

Last week, one of my colleagues celebrated her birthday, and our team decided to have breakfast in person rather than have our weekly phone check-in.

When our plates arrived, I was shocked at how full they were: talk about portion distortion!

By the way, it was delicious, and yes, of course I ate the whole thing! Why would you ask? Health coaches are human, too…. And almost eight hours later, I emailed the team that I still wasn’t hungry.

cupped hand appleI’m a huge proponent of cooking from scratch and eating at home, and one of the myriad reasons is exactly that: portion size is much more easily controlled at home, and as we head into our 40s and 50s, it can be a key factor in maintaining a healthy weight.

If I ate out on a regular basis, as many Americans do, I readily admit that I would be sunk. That came through loud and clear on my recent vacation!

Even our cookbooks conspire against us: one well-loved classic has had the same recipe for brownies over the decades—except that in the 1960s, it served 30, and now the same amount serves 16!

So what is considered a healthy portion? As a health coach, I’ve watched clients obsess over weighing and measuring food and counting calories, proteins, fats, and carbs … and having done it myself in the past, I get it: it was hugely helpful to me when I began my own weight loss journey a dozen years ago.

And all this measuring and counting can just add another level of stress in our relationship with food and the kitchen: we can barely commit to cooking from scratch—if we have to measure our portions after measuring our ingredients, that can feel like adding to the mental load!

Want a quick way to estimate portion size? I call my guide “Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb,” sort of in honor of Dr. Seuss. [Edit: The credit actually belongs to Al Perkins!]

  • handprintHand: Let’s start with veggies, which are my favorite food: a single portion of cooked vegetables should be about the size of your closed fist. If we’re talking raw green leafies, 2 fists = 1 portion.
  • Hand: Next, protein, whether it’s animal or vegetable in origin a single portion of protein should be about the size of your palm and no thicker. (Yeah, the smallest steak on most restaurant menus is usually 8 oz, more than 2 times that, so unless you’re taking most of it home, skip that 24 oz prime rib!)
  • Fingers: Turn your palm up and cup your fingers—carbohydrates, such as fruits, (preferably whole) grains, pasta, and/or carbohydrate-rich veggies, should just fill it for a single portion.
  • Thumb: One portion of fat (and yes, we do need it in our diets)—think nuts, seeds, olive oil, butter/ghee, coconut oil, cheese, salad dressing—should be about the size of your thumb.

Is this a perfect system? No.

And it’s a lot easier than getting out the scale and taking time to log into an app to figure out the amount of protein/fat/carbs we’re getting.

What I love about the system is that it accounts for differences in size: a large man’s portion size will naturally be larger than a petite woman’s.

How many portions do we need a day? Ah, there’s the rub!

If you’re looking to gain or lose pounds or to address a specific health issue through diet, you will need to consult a registered dietitian to weigh in (haha, yes, I went there).

If you’re a basically healthy individual of any size who is looking to fine-tune eating choices to optimize your health or to figure out whether certain foods seem to cause certain symptoms without going through allergy/sensitivity testing, this is where the fun begins!

We are all bio-individual, so the eating style that works for me may not work for you: the only way to find your ideal eating style is to experiment, and yes, that will take time—not a lot of time each day but at least a few weeks of a little time each day.

I’ve found the simplest way to go about this experiment is to keep a food journal—don’t panic! Remember, I don’t believe in counting macro- and micronutrients. Nor am I deep into journaling for pages and pages. If you want to give it a try, don’t make it complicated!

Instead, write down what you ate using the estimated portion system above or take a picture of each meal you eat (you’re doing it for Instagram most of the time anyway, am I right?) and quickly jot down how you felt—physically and emotionally—directly before and after you ate, an hour later, and a few hours later.

This is not a scientific experiment, and you can be as rigorous as you want. You may choose to:

  • eliminate a certain food or group of foods, say grains or dairy or eggs, for a few days or a week.
  • combine foods in different ways or change what you eat for a certain meal—maybe eat oatmeal for breakfast one week, fruit and yogurt for one week, eggs and veggies for one week.
  • vary the number of portions of food groups: try eating 1 portion of protein, 1 of fat, 1 of carbs, 1 of vegetables at a particular (at each?) meal for a week; the next week go with 1 + 1 + 1 + 2 or 1 + 1 + 1 + 3…

You get the idea.

The goal is to be attentive to how you feel, to really get in touch with how what you eat affects your body and mind. It’s not something we think about often, particularly when we are often told that diet “has nothing to do with it.”

When you’re journaling, consider the level (or lack) of:

  • Physical
    • headache, dizziness
    • nausea, gas, or other digestive upset
    • sleep
    • strength
    • energy
    • focus, alertness
  • Emotional
    • anxiety
    • depression
    • restlessness
    • irritability
    • agitation
    • energy
    • humor
    • interest
    • calm
    • happiness/joy

phone laptop tabletYou can keep your journal in any way that works for you: on your computer, on paper the good old-fashioned way, etc. You could even set up a new Instagram account that is private and doesn’t accept followers (except perhaps your health coach?): post a picture and put the date and time in the caption, then use the comments to keep track of how you feel. The trick is to keep your journal handy, especially if you travel or eat out a lot.

Me? I would probably just use an online document, so I’m linking you to my version of a food journal. Feel free to download it for your own use!

Once you’ve tracked your food and feelings for a while, see if you can find any patterns. For example, in recent years, I have noticed connections between canker sores (which plagued me terribly as a child) and gluten. I’ve also picked up on a distinct increase in joint pain when I eat grains.

Would I test positive for food allergies or sensitivities? Probably not, but after I make these connections, I know that faced with a delicious loaf of bread, I have a choice, and I know the consequences of indulging. And yes, sometimes I still go ahead and eat it!

Leave me a comment and let me know your portion tips and/or whether you’ve ever used a journal to track your food and what you learned in the process!