Keeping Portions Under Control
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Keeping Portions Under Control

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD

These days, lots of us eat too much and don't realize it because we've become so used to seeing (and eating!) large portions.

The Problems of Eating Too Much

People who often overeat are likely to become overweight. They also risk getting a number of medical problems, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, bone and joint problems, breathing and sleeping problems, and even depression. Adults who are overweight or obese are at greater risk for heart disease, heart failure, and stroke.

It's easy to understand why the food industry tends to serve way more food than is necessary: Customers love to feel like they're getting the best value for their money! But the value meal is no deal when it triples our calories and sets the stage for health problems.

The Truth About Serving Sizes

One reason that people eat too much at meals is that they tend to eat what's on their plate. As portions have increased, so have the calories we eat. So it's helpful to understand the difference between serving sizes and recommended amounts of different foods.

Serving sizes. The serving size on a food label is not telling you the amount you should eat. The serving size is a guide to help you see how many calories and nutrients — as well as how much fat, sugar, and salt — are in that quantity of that food.

Sometimes the serving size on the food label will be a lot less than you are used to eating or serving. In some cases, it's perfectly OK (and even a good idea) to eat and serve more than the serving size listed. For example, if you're cooking frozen vegetables and see the serving size is 1 cup, it's no problem to eat more because most vegetables are low in calories and fat, yet high in nutrition.

But when it comes to foods that are high in calories, sugar, or fat, the serving size is a useful guide to alert you that you may be getting more than is healthy. Let's say you buy a 3-ounce bag of cookies and you eat the whole bag. If the label shows the serving size is 1 ounce, not only did you have 3 servings, you also had 3 times the listed calories as well as 3 times the sugar.

Recommended amounts. Serving sizes tell you how much nutrition you're getting from a food but they don't tell you which foods you need to stay healthy — or how much of those foods to eat. That's where the U.S. Department of Agriculture's MyPlate comes in.

MyPlate is based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It can help you get the right mix and amount of food for you and your family. 

What to Look for

A great way to think about healthy portion sizes is to use the concept of the "divided plate." Think of a plate divided into four equal sections:

  • Use one of the top sections for protein.
  • Use the other top section for starch, preferably a whole grain.
  • Fill the bottom two sections with veggies (or fruit and veggies).

The foods in each section should not overlap or be piled high. Dividing the plate this way not only will help you keep portions under control, but will help you serve more balanced meals to your family.

Portion-Control Tips

Parents need to take control of our own portion sizes and help kids learn to do the same.

Here are some tips:

  • Serve food on smaller plates so meals look larger. A sandwich on a dinner plate looks lost; on an appetizer plate it looks downright hefty.
  • When cooking large batches or storing leftovers, separate them into smaller portions before you put them in the fridge or freezer. That way, when your family reaches in, they'll automatically grab a portion that makes sense.
  • Don't let kids eat out of bags or containers. Serve individual portions and make it a rule to eat in the kitchen.
  • Dish out meals at the counter and avoid bringing the whole pot to the table. Not keeping the food at arm's length can make your family think twice about reaching for seconds. If they do want seconds, offer more veggies or salads.
  • Aim for three scheduled healthful meals and one or two healthy snacks throughout the day. Skipping a meal can lead to overeating at the next one.
  • Add more salads and fruit to your family's diet, especially at the start of a meal, which can help control hunger and give a sense of fullness while controlling calorie intake.
  • Try not to rush through meals. Go slowly and give everyone a chance to feel full before serving more. Family sit-down meals also provide valuable opportunities to reconnect with one another.
  • Don't insist that kids clean their plates. Encourage them to stop eating when they feel full.
  • When eating out, share meals, order an appetizer as a main dish, or pack up half to take home before you begin to eat. When getting take out, order fewer meals and serve family style. At fast food restaurants, choose kids meals with healthy options (milk, fruit, or carrots).

Getting Kids Involved

Get kids actively involved in figuring out how much to eat.

A serving of rice is about the same size as an ice cream scoop, so let your child use the scoop to serve "rice cream" to the family. A piece of meat should be about the size of a deck of cards, so see how that chicken breast measures up. And why not break out the kitchen scale while you're at it? Weighing or measuring food may not be your idea of fun, but it probably is to your kids — plus it's a great way to reinforce math concepts.

One easy way to size up portions if you don't have any measurements is to use your hand as a guide. Kids have smaller hands than adults, so it serves as a reminder that kids should eat smaller portions:

  • A closed fist is about a cup — and a cup is the amount experts recommend for a portion of pasta, rice, cereal, vegetables, and fruit.
  • A meat portion should be about as big as your palm.
  • Limit the amount of added fats (like butter, mayo, or salad dressing) to the size of the top of your thumb.

And don't forget the good news about portions: they work both ways. You may want to cut back on spaghetti portions, but you can dish out more than one serving of carrots or green beans. This can help make the "five a day" fruit and vegetable goal more doable.

Remember the role you play in showing kids how to size up portions. If you eat two heaping helpings of food each night, that's what your kids will learn too.

As kids grow, their appetites will vary depending on a number of things. They tend to be more hungry during growth spurts or sports seasons when they're more active, and less hungry during downtimes. As their appetites change, keep serving right-sized portions and encourage them to slow down to enjoy their food. Then check in on whether they're full before they go for seconds.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: June 2018