Even with the best of intentions, research shows that many people overestimate their portion size. Whether you’re trying to lose weight or fuel yourself more appropriately, here are some simple portion control tips to help you reach your goals.
Table of contents
- What is portion control?
- How To Portion Control
- 1. Use smaller dinnerware.
- 2. Don’t eat out of the packaging.
- 3. Plan meals in advance.
- 4. Pre-portion prepped food.
- 5. Use the hand portion size method.
- 6. Understand calorie density.
- 7. Read food labels.
- 8. Start with protein and fiber.
- 9. Use portion control plates.
- 10. Drink a glass of water.
- 11. Use the hunger-fullness scale.
- 12. Remember servings aren’t portions.
- 13. Eat slowly.
- 14. Eat without digital distraction.
- 15. Consider tracking your food.
- The Bottom Line
What is portion control?
Portion control is the process of ensuring you are consuming the right amount of food. While there are many ways to moderate food intake, portion control is a method of moderating one’s diet to limit the over-consumption of food and calories to support an individual’s health goals. The act of portion control can benefit anyone looking to support their overall health; however, it is especially important for individuals looking to support a goal of weight loss.
Being mindful of your portion size can help to ensure you’re not eating too much or too little. While listening to your body and understanding your personal nutrition needs is vital, there are also some simple portion control tips and strategies that you can use to help manage your food intake.
How To Portion Control
Here are 15 tips to help you manage your portion sizes to support your personal health goals.
1. Use smaller dinnerware.
Using a larger plate or bowl can cause individuals to add more food to their dish and may even leave visual eaters feeling unsatisfied if their dish does not look full. In one study, individuals who ate out of a large bowl consumed 77% more pasta compared with individuals given a medium-sized bowl, even though the food was not rated tastier or otherwise notable (3).
While this may seem like a simple suggestion, the evidence shows that it can have a big impact on both your food behavior and interpretation of meal satisfaction. The next time you’re putting a meal together use a smaller plate or bowl or use one that makes your dish look robust and full. Not only will it likely impact how much food you consume but it may also impact how satisfied you feel.
2. Don’t eat out of the packaging.
Instead of eating directly out of the box, bag, or package, add your food to a plate or bowl before eating. Research shows that people tend to eat more out of large packages than small ones, especially when it comes to snacks.
One study found that people ate 50% more chips when they were given no visual cues as to how large a portion should be, while in another study people ate 129% more candies when served from a large container than a small one (4, 5).
Be it crackers and cheese or hummus and veggies, eating directly out of the box of crackers or tub of hummus will likely lead you to eat more, whether you realize it or not. The next time you reach for a snack, rather than eating from the original packaging, empty it into a small bowl to prevent eating more than you need.
3. Plan meals in advance.
Planning meals ahead of time can help to control portions. Not only does planning your meals help you to control your portion sizes but planning your meals ahead of time can help to create balanced meals and take the guesswork out of mealtime.
Instead of waiting until the last minute to decide what to eat, and arguably the moment you’re over-hungry, plan your breakfast, lunch, and dinner before the day begins. Whether you’ve just made a mental note or got everything organized in containers in the fridge, a little forward meal planning goes a long way when it comes to portion control.
4. Pre-portion prepped food.
Whether you’ve made baked oatmeal, a pot of soup, or a lasagna, once it’s cooked and cooled, store portions in individual containers as opposed to leaving them in the pot, pan, or baking dish.
Much like eating out of the packaging, rather than serving food directly from the stove, portion it onto plates before serving. While it may seem like an extra step, and it technically is, it can help prevent overfilling your plate or discourage you from returning for seconds, assuming you don’t truly need them. By pre-portioning meals, especially ones you batch cook, into containers for the fridge or freezer, you can easily create grab-and-go meals that are ready when you need them in just the right size to support your health goals.
5. Use the hand portion size method.
While counting calories, weighing, and measuring your food may be the most accurate method of portion control; it’s not for everyone. Fortunately, there’s an easier way to estimate portion sizes known as the hand method for portion sizes.
This simple yet highly effective method of estimating portion sizes is a great portion control tool because it’s easy to use, portable, and relative in size to the individual. Using your hand as a guide, you help to manage your portion size for protein, carbohydrates, and fats, specifically:
- 1 portion of protein = 1 palm
- 1 portion of carbohydrates = 1 fist
- 1 portion of vegetables = 1 fist
- 1 portion of fruit = 1 fist
- 1 portion of fat = 1 thumb
Of course, there is some nuance to this method, as there is with all portion control methods. However, generally speaking, consuming palm-sized portions of protein, fist-sized portions of carbohydrates, fruits, and vegetables, and thumb-sized portions of fat at every meal is a great way to control portion sizes and create balanced meals.
6. Understand calorie density.
Understanding calorie density is one of the simplest tools you can add to your nutrition and weight management toolkit. In fact, the calorie density of a food is what determines its portion size.
Calorie density, also known as energy density, refers to the number of calories a food contains in relation to its weight or volume (6). The weight or volume of food is not a direct indication of its calorie density as different macronutrients have different calorie densities;
- 1 gram carbohydrate = 4 calories
- 1 gram protein = 4 calories
- 1 gram fat = 9 calories
Foods high in fat, such as olive oil or avocado, have a high-calorie density and, therefore, have a smaller suggested portion size, while foods low in fat, such as broccoli and berries, have a larger suggested portion size.
By understanding and utilizing the concepts of calorie density and volume eating you can ensure that you’re controlling your portion sizes while maximizing the volume of your food and drink intake.
7. Read food labels.
While reading food labels won’t inherently help to reduce portion sizes, it will help to create awareness and mindfulness around the food products you are consuming. Reading food labels will help you understand the calorie content per serving size, which helps you understand the calorie content of the portion you are personally consuming.
It’s important to understand serving sizes on food labels are not a suggested portion size, rather, serving sizes are standardized measurements and are used to quantify nutrition data for comparative purposes. Serving sizes are listed in common household measurements such as cups or tablespoons, followed by the metric amount in grams, and tell you the quantity of food used to calculate the calorie and nutrient content in the nutrition facts label.
Not only can reading food labels help you make healthier food choices overall, but reading the nutrition facts label can help you to better understand how the calorie content of the portion you are consuming and potentially consume fewer calories overall.
8. Start with protein and fiber.
When you’re building a meal, ensure that you add a source of protein and fiber to your plate and start by eating them first. Not only are these healthy foods incredibly nutrient-dense but high-protein foods and fiber-rich foods are the most satiating foods and will help to keep you full for longer periods (7).
Protein is the most satiating macronutrient, and many studies have found that individuals have decreased appetites with a higher protein intake. Meeting your optimal daily protein intake is not only vital for overall health but has been shown to aid in weight loss by increasing metabolic rating and decreasing hunger cues. A study has shown that increasing protein to 25% of calories can reduce cravings by 60% and the desire to snack at night by half (8).
Moreover, high-fiber foods, such as fruits and vegetables, are considered high-volume foods because they have a low-calorie density per serving while being incredibly filling. Therefore, by filling your plate or bowl with veggies you can help to increase the level of satiety a meal provides without overly increasing the calorie content.
9. Use portion control plates.
In addition to using smaller dinnerware and your hand as a portion control tool, specific portion control plates can also be used. Portion control plates are plates designed with different sections for specific foods. While these plates are often used for children, they work equally well for adults and are a great portion control tool, especially as you’re learning.
Although filling a plate with portions of vegetables, protein about the size of your palm, complex carbs about the size of your fist, and healthy fats about the size of your thumb may come naturally to some, for others this can be a great learning tool for portion control until it becomes more second nature. Portion control containers also exist which are great for portioning for storage or meal prep.
10. Drink a glass of water.
Drinking water instead of juice, soda, alcohol, or other calorie-dense beverages can with portion control.
Not only can swapping water for sugar-filled beverages help to reduce your total calorie intake from liquids, but consuming sweetened beverages with meals has been shown to stimulate appetite (9). Moreover, studies have shown that simply consuming a glass of water before a meal can help you consume fewer calories overall (10, 11, 12).
11. Use the hunger-fullness scale.
When it comes to determining how much to eat, the primary objective is to learn to listen to your body, because it’s the best coach you will ever have. However, after years of yo-yo dieting and confusing nutrition messaging can cause you to be a little out of touch with your internal hunger cues, fortunately, there is a very helpful tool that you can use in your nutrition toolkit.
The hunger-fullness scale is an intuitive eating tool that we can use to get in touch with our internal cues and can help us re-learn how to tell the difference between true, physical hunger, and psychological hunger that is caused by emotions, like stress, boredom, sadness, or happiness. Ranking your level of hunger on a scale of 1 to 10, before and while you’re eating, can help to bring more awareness to your hunger cues and control portions in more a natural way.
12. Remember servings aren’t portions.
While it may seem rude to leave food on your plate, it’s important to remember that the amount of food you’re served is not necessarily the amount of food you need. In some cases, it may be too little food, while in other cases it may be too much food, especially when it comes to restaurant servings. Restaurant portion sizes tend to be much larger than ones we would consume at one, in some cases two to three times the size, which has been shown to lead us to eat beyond our satiety levels (13, 14).
If you’re out for a celebratory meal eating a little bit more than usual is nothing to be frowned upon, however, if you’re regularly dining out or ordering in, it’s important to consider the amount of food the restaurant has served you may be larger than the portion your body needs.
If the serving provided by a restaurant is too large, you can request a half portion before ordering, share your portion with others at the table, or request that any leftovers be wrapped up to bring home and eat for another meal.
13. Eat slowly.
Although this portion control tip may seem obvious it’s often missed. Eating slowly is a simple yet very effective way to bring more mindfulness to mealtime and ensure that the food you are eating is nourishing and satiating you. Not only does eating quickly increase the likelihood of overeating through speed alone but studies have shown that eating slowly leads to decreased calorie intake and increased meal enjoyment (15).
14. Eat without digital distraction.
You might be shocked to learn how much eating in front of your TV, computer, or smartphone can impact your eating habits and food intake. A review of studies found that individuals who watched TV during mealtime tended to eat more than people who ate without digital distraction (16). So instead of eating in front of a screen, plate your meal, sit down at the table, and take your time to savor every bite.
15. Consider tracking your food.
Not only does research show that individuals who begin tracking their food are often surprised by how many calories they eat, but individuals who track their food for extended periods of time tend to lose more weight (17). While calorie counting is the most popular option, there are many ways to track what you eat and benefits of tracking your food.
In addition to controlling portion sizes, tracking your food can help to create more awareness of your food behaviors, act as a form of accountability, and remind you of what you are doing well and what areas of opportunity exist. The act of tracking your food can be as simple as keeping a written food log in a notebook or on your phone or as detailed as tracking your calorie deficit or macro intake via an app.
The Bottom Line
Portion control is important for supporting overall health, ensuring you’re adequately fueling yourself, managing hunger cues, supporting a goal of weight loss, and limiting unwanted weight gain. Using smaller dinnerware, reading labels, plating your food, planning meals, drinking water, using the hand portion method, eating slowly, and tracking your food can all help with portion control.