Portion control is typically associated with weight loss goals, calorie counting and strict serving sizes but in reality, we should all be aiming to portion our food in a healthy. But what does portion control mean and how do you actually do it properly? How much is too little, too much can have many of us guessing but luckily there are some reliable guidelines to ensure we consume portions that are ‘just right’ like Goldilocks.
What is portion control?
Portion control means choosing a healthy amount of food to meet your nutrition needs without over, or under, consumption. When you’re plating up a meal or reaching for a snack, that’s choosing a portion of food. You’re determining what portion of food will satisfy you and provide you with enough fuel. It’s different to the “serving” recommendation you’ll find on the back of a packet, but it’s important to understand those as well to ensure you’re eating mindfully and making the healthiest choices possible.
The five food groups
Before we delve deeper into portions and serves, let’s start with the basics – the five food groups. We can’t emphasise enough the importance of including these food groups in your diet given the trend in restrictive fads that surface every couple of years.
No single food can provide all the nutrients required for good health. As such, the Australian Dietary Guidelines (ADG) recommend a variety of foods from the following five main food groups:
- Plenty of vegetables including different types of colours and textures, as well as legumes
- Wholegrains and high fibre cereals
- Lean meats, poultry, eggs, tofu, seeds, and nuts
- Dairy and dairy products
How much should you eat of each food group?
The Australian Dietary Guidelines also recommend eating a certain amount of each food group per day, based on your age. The average, active adult should aim to eat:
- 5-6 serves vegetables and legumes
- 3-6 serves grain and cereal foods, mostly wholegrain and high fibre varieties
- 2-3 serves lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, legumes/beans
- 3-4 serves milk, yogurt, cheese and dairy alternatives
- 2 serves fruit
Note that this table is suggestive for healthy individuals of a healthy BMI. We recommend speaking with a doctor and a dietitian if you have specific weight management or other medical needs. The dietary guidelines consider the physiological needs at the various stages in an individual’s life. Here are some of the unique needs of some of the stages:
- Higher number of serves for pregnant women particularly for wholegrains, lean meat, poultry, eggs, fish due to increased energy needs of foetus and increased need for iron due to increased blood volume in the body
- Higher number of serves for lactating women for vegetables, grains, lean meat, poultry, eggs, fish to support milk production and ensure adequate nutrient intake for mother and baby
- Lower number of serves for elderly over the age of 70 due to reduced energy needs owing to a more sedentary lifestyle
- Higher dairy needs for post-menopausal women over 50 and men over 70 due to increased risk of fractures and osteoporosis
What does a serving look like?
At a glance, ONE serving size means:
- ½ cup of most cooked, dense, starchy vegetables
- 1 cup of salad or green vegetables
- ½ cup of most grains
- 1 slice of bread or muffin
- 60-80g of lean meats
- 2 eggs
- 1 piece of large fruit, 2 pieces of medium fruit, 1 cup of diced fruit
- 1 cup of milk
- ½ cup of yoghurt
- 2 slices of hard cheese
Tips for portion control
Portion control doesn’t mean whipping out the scales at every meal, Googling the serving size of each food on earth before chowing down, or incessantly counting calories. Once you have an understanding of the guidelines it becomes easier to eat more mindfully and intuitively. Here are some of out best, dietitian-approved tips for portion control.
1. Use the plate method
As a general rule of thumb, each plate of food should contain roughly 50% vegetables, legumes, or fruit, 25% whole grains and 25% lean meat.
2. Get handy
Another helpful way of controlling your portions is by using your hands to measure food.
- Your palm determines your protein portions
- Your fist determines your veggie portions
- Your cupped hand determines your carb portions
- Your thumb determines your fat portions
3. Serve up on smaller plates
Whether it’s a full meal or a snack, always serve your food on a plate rather than eating out of the packet or box (or pecking through the fridge). Avoid enormous plates or bowls that are easily overfilled and opt for smaller dishes.
4. Opt for volume
100 grams of peanut butter and 100 grams of baby spinach might weigh the same, but their energy density and ability to fill you up is very different. Volume eating involves consuming large volumes of food, with a focus on low energy density foods. Instead of smashing a whole pizza, plate up three slices and serve it with a hearty salad. Read more on volume eating here.
5. Eat mindfully
Mindful eating is incredibly important for portion control. Mindful eating uses the act of mindfulness, or being present, while consuming food to really focus on the taste, texture and satiety of your meal. It involves listening to your hunger cues to eat when you feel like it and stopping when you don’t. This is helped by eating slowly and without distraction, which research has found leads to overeating and extra snacking.