Ultimate Guide to Portion Control

What you should know about portion control and how to make it work for weight loss.

You’ve probably come to the conclusion that controlling your portions could be the answer to losing weight. I can tell you, it most definitely is the answer! If you’ve ever eaten more than one bowl of cereal, dished yourself up a pint of ice cream, or put your hand multiple times into a bag of chips, you probably know why you aren’t losing weight.

The portion control approach to weight loss just makes sense! As human beings, we should be able to eat a variety of foods, including our favorite treats, and maintain a health weight. However, controlling the AMOUNT of food we eat has never been more challenging in the history of our species.

What is portion control?

When people talk about portion control, they are usually referring to a standard way to measure and eat food for optimal health. There are certain food measurements that been agreed on by scientists to equal a reasonable serving. The official definition of the difference between serving size and portion size at eatright.org is as follows:

Serving size is a standardized amount of food. It may be used to quantify recommended amounts, as is the case with the MyPlate food groups, or represent quantities that people typically consume on a Nutrition Facts label.

Portion size is the amount of a food you choose to eat — which may be more or less than a serving. eatright.org

For example, the Nutrition Facts label may indicate ½ cup cereal for one serving but if you eat ¾ cup, that is your portion size.

And although the definition of serving size and portion size may technically differ, many regular people like me simplify the terms and use them interchangeably. For example, 1 slice of bread is generally referred to as 1 serving of grains or a portion. 1 apple, equals 1 serving of fruit. Portion size can be summarized as the reasonable measurement of food for a single person.

It’s considered over eating if instead of 1 serving of oatmeal, you choose 10 servings. This is portion excess. Portion control would be to stop eating the oatmeal after the first bowl, portion or serving.

6 Reasons Portion Control is Hard

  1. We live in a world of excess! Everything from our possessions to our food screams excess. We can’t just have 2 bedrooms anymore, we must have 5. We can’t just have 1 type of cereal in our pantry, we need 12!
  2. Food is incredibly convenient. Remember when we used to have to hunt and harvest for food? We literally don’t even have to leave the house anymore to be well fed for decades.
  3. Ready to eat food is so easy to consume. Imagine making homemade crackers vs. buying a 5 lb box of Goldfish. I literally bought a Costco box of Goldfish just last week, and my family managed to eat the entire box in 3 days. It’s so easy to do when you don’t have to work for it.
  4. Everything is hyper-palatable and we love to indulge. If one of the 7 deadly sins is gluttony, we’re probably all headed for hell. Salt, fat, and sugar has made everything just taste so dang good!
  5. We love grazing! Snacking is the best way to not be in control of your portions. We love social eating and grazing around a table of food, or always carrying a snack with us.
  6. Portion distortion is on the rise. Earlier, I mentioned standard agreements on food measurements, but those standards are becoming lost on us. I recently bought a cookie from a local cookie gourmet shop. The cookie weighed 1/2 pound! Super sizing, has become normal sizing, and we forgot how we used to be satisfied with less. The graphic below shows us that the standard measurement for a portion 20 years ago was adequate for a serving. Today, those servings are getting bigger without us realizing it.
portion comparison chart from health beet

How many portions should you eat?

Following basic guidelines for calorie intake can dictate how many portions you should eat of each food group. However, if you require more specific guidelines, you can visit your local dietitian or physician, as it will depend on certain factors like:

  • Your goals. Are you trying to lose weight, maintain, gain weight, increase energy, run a marathon, etc?
  • Your current height, weight, and muscle mass. Every person will require different amounts of food depending on their size and makeup of fat to muscle.
  • Your age, gender, stage of life. Nursing mothers, growing kids, and the elderly will all require different portions or servings.
  • Your activity level: Are you training for an ultra run, or do you work at an office all day?

If you are just interested in general guidelines for portion control, the following chart is a good start. The full guidelines can be seen on the USDA 2015-2020 Guidelines for Americans here.

Portion control daily guidelines
Recommended food amounts from each food group at different calorie levels
Food Group1200140016001800200024003000
Vegetables1.5 C1.5 C2 C 2.5 C 2.5 C3 C4 C
Fruit1 C1.5 C1.5 C1.5 C2 C2 C2.5 C
Grains4 oz5 oz5 oz6 oz6 oz8 oz10 oz
Dairy2.5 C 2.5 C3 C3 C3 C3 C3 C
Protein3 oz4 oz5 oz5 oz5.5 oz6.5 oz7 oz
Oils17 g17 g22 g24 g27 g31 g44 g
Limited (calories)100110130170270350470

A close look at those portions and you may quickly realize you are eating MUCH MORE food than what is recommended. If you are aiming for 1800 calories per day, over the course of a full day the proper portions for you would be:

  • 2 1/2 cups of veggies (possibly 1 big salad)
  • 1 1/2 cups of fruit (such as 2 pieces of fruit)
  • 6 ounces of grains (example: 2 slices of bread, 1 cup of pasta and 1 cup of oatmeal)
  • and 5 ounces of protein (which is more than some chicken breasts.
  • 3 cups of dairy (a glass of milk, an ounce of cheese, and a cup of yogurt)

Looking at your diet from the perspective of servings brings into harsh reality that you are likely eating more than 2000 calories per day. Throw in a few treats here and there, and portion control just might get you back to learning how much food your body actually needs.

Example of portion controlled meals from a 1800 calorie diet

To see what proper portions for an 1800 calorie day looks like in terms of real meals, I’ve included a full day of eating below:

Breakfast = 1 cup veggies, 1/2 cup fruit, 1 ounce grains, 1 ounce protein.

Portion plate like choose myplate breakfast idea

Lunch = 1 cup veggies, 1/2 cup fruit, 2 ounces grains, 2 ounces protein, 1 ounce cheese

Portion control plate for kids

Dinner = 1 cup veggies, 1/2 cup fruit, 2 ounces grains, 2 ounces protein

Portion control plate for dinner

Mid-day meal (I’m not calling it a snack, because we are sitting down to eat it, but we have = 2 cups dairy and 1 ounce grains, so yogurt with granola is perfect!

yogurt and granola

How many portions should kids eat in a day?

This printable chart gives you an idea about portion sizes for kids. For older kids, it’s actually the same as the 1800 calorie per day example above!

My plate portions for kids

Tips to practice portion control

As I’ve tried to practice portion control through my own weight loss journey, a few things have helped me create the habits that help me stay within proper portions.

  1. Plan ahead my meals so I am not surprised by excess.
  2. Eat three meals per day, because snacking is impossible to keep track.
  3. Weigh my food so I don’t overdo it without being aware. This is especially helpful for cheese and meat.
  4. Track my food, because I’m forgetful!
  5. Eat at the table, with a portion plate for the meals. This creates a ritual around meal time to help me stay within the guidelines. It also stops me from getting too distracted and taking more than one serving of foods I shouldn’t. (our best portion control plates here)
  6. Purchase pre-portioned packages of foods in case I need to take something on the go, or something I have a history of overeating (like trail mix or crackers!)

Do you have to measure portions, or can you “eye-ball” it?

Although I prefer measuring to keep myself honest, there are a few different simple tricks to help you eyeball things.

  • Protein: 1 deck of cards (or the size of your palm) for 3 ounces of chicken, beef, fish, turkey, pork
  • Grains: A compact disc for the size of a lice of bread. A baseball or the size of your fist for rice, pasta, noodles, quinoa, oatmeal.
  • Cheese: If you cube cheese, consider 4 dice is the size of 1 ounce.
  • Nuts: This is the hardest for me to control portions with, but a golf ball is all you need for 1 ounce. Or, one serving of peanut butter, the size of a walnut!

What tools can help you measure and control portion sizes if you want to be more accurate?

  • A Food scale. Although I’ve been measuring my food for a long time, I still get tricked by the weight of food. A Food scale is the only way to be certain you are eating the right amount.
  • Measuring cups and spoons. 1/2 cup of oats looks a lot similar to 2/3 cup of oats, yet the difference matters if you are controlling portions.
  • Portion Control Plates. While you can segment any plate into the food groups, the portion control plates that I have are inexpensive and get the job done! What’s better, kids who use them inherently want to eat balanced controlled portions, without you even verbalizing the suggestion.

Portion sizes for common food

You can always generalize portion sizes without getting into specifics by just knowing a few common ones. Most vegetables, regardless of variety, are going to have similar portion measurements. This holds true for different food groups.

Vegetables

  • 1 cup raw leafy greens
  • 1/2 cup cut-up vegetables
  • ½ cup cooked veggies
  • ¼ cup vegetable juice

Fruits

  • 1 medium whole fruit
  • ½ cup cut-up fruit
  • ¼ cup 100% fruit juice
  • ¼ cup dried fruit

Grains

  • 1 slice bread
  • 1 small tortilla
  • 1 cup ready-to-eat cereal flakes
  • 1 oz (⅛ cup) uncooked pasta or rice
  • 1/2 cup cooked rice, pasta, or cereal
  • 1/2 cup popped popcorn

Protein

  • 3 oz cooked meat or poultry
  • 1 egg or 2 egg whites
  • 1 Tbsp peanut butter
  • 2 Tbsp or 1/2 oz nuts or seeds
  • ¼ cup cooked beans or peas

Dairy4

  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup yogurt
  • 1 oz cheese

Fats and oils

  • 1 Tbsp oil (coconut, vegetable, canola, corn, olive, soybean, safflower)
  • 1 Tbsp mayonnaise
  • 1 Tbsp salad dressing

The big takeaway is understanding portion sizes are simply how much we need to eat in a day, vs what we generally eat in a day, and this can be shocking! We can eat a lot less food, still get all the nutrients we need, and lose extra weight that might be limiting our health in some way.

What other questions do you have about portion control?

What are some of your tips for keeping portions under control?

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The ultimate guide to portion control