Q: What is healthy portion size? – Shirley
A: Great question, Shirley!
A lot of us have heard that the right portion size can be the key to weight loss, but I’d really like to take a look at this question, turn it around a little bit, and see if we can come up with a better question and in the end get a better answer. I also have a personal story about my journey with letting go of portion size, so I’d like to answer your question offering you some perspective from my experience…
Today, instead of focusing on portions and asking what the best portion size is, I’d like to reword the question ask what’s the best “proportion” to be eating – that is, I’d like to look at the balance of foods and the food choices you’re making instead of measuring each item in each meal each and every day. An article from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health puts it well: “Rather than focusing on calories alone, however, emerging research shows that quality is also key in determining what we should eat and what we should avoid in order to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Rather than choosing foods based only on caloric value, think instead about choosing high-quality, healthy foods, and minimizing low-quality foods.”(1)
Now I understand the draw of feeling like you have total control over your body and your weight with a measuring cup in one hand and a pen in the other. I get it; I’ve been there. In fact, I recently found an old food log of mine from several years ago, with meticulously detailed notes on each item I ate for each meal of every day. I wrote down the weight of the food serving in ounces, the carb count, fat, protein, and the time I ate it. It’s a really interesting log to look back at because I remember vividly how much energy it took for me to measure each ounce and tablespoon, find the nutritional information, and write it down. Every. Meal. Of. The day. And at the end of the day, for as hard as I was working and as meticulous as I was being, my body didn’t end up looking the way they told me it would. I didn’t feel awesome and energized, and I was so weighed down by the whole process of portion control that I constantly felt discouraged.
I began wondering if all the pain-in-the-butt effort was worth it, and so I decided to try a new approach.
I began focusing on listening more to my body and eating as much “healthy food” as I needed to feel satisfied during a meal. This means that when I was hungry I would load up my plate with fresh cooked green vegetables and healthy protein, and some healthy carbs like sweet potato, and I would eat until I was full. And then I would stop eating. No measuring, no writing, no tedious logs. And some pretty cool things started happening:
- I felt WAY less stressed about meal time. Instead of dreading dinner, I begin to be able to enjoy the process of cooking again.
- Eating felt less guilty. If I wanted an extra half of a sweet potato or a few more bites of steak I could eat it without being afraid of “consequences” because I was “breaking the rules”.
- I got more in touch with how my body felt when I ate the way that was best for me, which allowed me to hone in on the best way to eat to support my body and feel great. It’s a full circle – I look my best when I feel my best, and I feel my best when I eat x,y, and z.
At first, I was definitely afraid that eating more and not paying as close attention to serving sizes would mean I would get a tummy or a bulge, but this was far from the truth. To be honest, my body only changed in positive ways – I was starting to look more toned at the gym and fill out in all the right places. My stomach stayed surprisingly flat, while I felt way more energized and didn’t “hit the wall” in the afternoon the way I used to.
The key to making this approach successful is to understand that it really is the proportions, not the portion sizes, that make the difference. The proportions I’m talking about are the balance of carbs, protein, and fats in each meal, snack, or mini meal you eat. It’s important to get a good balance of each nutrient group because they all offer different health benefits that work together to heal your body. You also remove the stress of having to worry about eating too much chicken or too many carrots – at the end of the day, if you’re eating whole real foods and avoiding processed refined fats and carbohydrates you’ll begin to see positive changes in your weight and energy.
4 Tips for Proper Proportions:
- Focus on nutrient dense foods. Instead of counting and measuring, look at the quality of the food you’re eating and aim for the highest marks. Healthy fats like avocado, coconut oil, and almonds should be on your plate. Healthy proteins like chicken, grass-fed steak, and wild caught fish should be there too. And make sure you get at least 2 servings of green veggies a day. A serving size is different for everyone, but I think we can all agree that 2 leaves of spinach won’t cut it. Measure your veggies by the handful – think 1-2 handfuls of vegetables per serving.
- Start with breakfast. By starting the day out with a nutrient dense, balanced meal you’re setting up yourself and your metabolism for better dietary success throughout the day. Studies have also found that having a balanced breakfast leads to healthier food choices for the rest of the day(2) (while this study was specifically focused on academic performance in kids, I’m pretty sure it applies just as much in the boardroom as it does in the classroom).
- Learn to listen to your body. This one is much more personal and takes more practice. You’ll actually have to pay attention to what you’re eating and how you feel afterward. This is where your cravings can actually come in handy – cravings for red meat and healthy carbs can actually be a good sign that you’re hearing your body’s message that you need a certain nutrient. On this same note, begin to get a feel for what it’s like to eat enough food to feel satisfied but not overly full or bloated. It turns out that eating huge portions can be unhealthy in the long run and actually slows down your metabolism, but if you’re paying attention you’ll begin to get a feel for how much is just enough, and you can start to determine your own best proportion size from there 🙂
- Break it down now. Consider this as a starting point for eyeballing your portion size: 40% of your meal should be veggies and healthy carbs; 30% of your meal should be healthy protein; 30% of your intake should be healthy fats (this won’t always take up 30% of the room on your plate). Feel free to eat more healthy fat with your next meal if you’re still hungry! Healthy fats are a great way to stay satisfied with even energy throughout the day.
Now I want to address that there are times when paying attention to portion size is a GOOD thing: When you’re indulging in a dessert or a sweet treat, pay attention to the serving size and moderate your intake. Refined sugars, carbohydrates, and unhealthy fats should always be avoided or only eaten sparingly. Even with gluten-free products and foods, because they’re still mainly made up of starch and sugar, eat them in moderation and pay attention to the recommended serving size. When you’re enjoying a glass of wine, don’t grab the cup that fits half the bottle of wine in it and call “1 serving”.
Another disclaimer I want to offer is that I DO support keeping food journals to become more aware of eating habits to have a visual guide for how to improve them. But it’s not necessary to measure food for day to day healthy eating and weight loss!
You can also use these general guidelines for choosing portion sizes:
- 100 g of meat (about ⅔ of a cup) is about 30 grams of protein
- A serving of green vegetables is about a cup
- 1 medium sweet potato or 2 medium-large carrots would be a serving of Paleo-friendly healthy carbs
- 2-4 tablespoons avocado oil, olive oil, ghee, coconut oil, or 1 small avocado or ¼-⅓ cup of almonds or other nuts would be a serving of healthy fats
- The Best Diet: Quality Counts
- The effects of breakfast on behavior and academic performance in children and adolescents