big hamburger meal
Diet & Nutrition
Weight Loss

How to Watch Your Portion Sizes

To control your weight, you need to do more than just choose a healthy mix of foods. You should also look at the kinds of food you eat and how much you eat at a time. Here, from the experts at the National Institutes of Health, are some smart strategies to help you determine whether you’re eating too much, or just enough:

What is the difference between a serving and a portion?

A serving size is the amount of food listed on a product’s food label and it varies from product to product. A portion is how much food you choose to eat at one time, whether in a restaurant, from a package, or at home. Sometimes the serving size and portion size match; sometimes they do not.

For example, according to a food label, 1 cup of macaroni and cheese is one serving. But if you make yourself a large bowl of macaroni and cheese, that portion is much bigger than one serving. The same may be true if you pour yourself a large bowl of cereal for breakfast. You should be the judge of how the portion you choose to eat relates to the serving size noted on the food label.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Nutrition Facts label (food label) is printed on most packaged foods. The label tells you how many calories and how much fat, protein, sodium (salt), and other nutrients are in one serving of food. Most packaged foods contain more than a single serving.

Keep in mind that the serving size on the food label is not a suggested amount of food to eat. It is just a quick way of letting you know the calories and nutrients in a certain amount of food. The serving size may be more or less than the amount that you should eat, depending on your age, weight, sex, and activity level.

For example, on the label a serving size is 1 cup, but the package has 2 servings. This means that if you eat the whole package, you need to multiply the number of calories and nutrients by 2 to find out how many calories you are eating.

How can I keep track of how much I am eating?

A food diary can be a good way to keep track of how much you are eating. Write down when, what, how much, where, and why you eat. This action can help you be aware of how much you are eating and the times you tend to eat too much. You can keep a food diary in a notebook, on your cell phone, or on a computer.

If you find that you eat even when you are not hungry, try doing something else instead of eating:

Take a break to walk around the block.

Read a book or magazine or listen to your favorite music.

Try doing something with your hands, like knitting or playing cards or checkers.

Try drinking water or herbal tea without sugar or eating a low-fat snack such as an apple if a craving hits you.

Through your diary, you can become aware of the times and reasons you eat less healthy foods or more food than your body needs. This can help as you try to make different choices in the future.

How can I control portions at home?

You do not need to measure and count everything you eat for the rest of your lifeā€”just do this long enough to recognize typical serving sizes. Try the ideas below to help you control portions at home:

Take the amount of food that is equal to one serving, according to the food label, and eat it off a plate instead of eating straight out of a large box or bag.

Avoid eating in front of the TV or while busy with other activities. Pay attention to what you are eating, chew your food well, and fully enjoy the smell and taste of your food.

Eat slowly so your brain can get the message when your stomach is full.

Try using smaller dishes, bowls, and glasses. This way, when you fill up your plate or glass, you will be eating and drinking less.

Control your intake of higher-fat, higher-calorie parts of a meal. Take seconds of vegetables and salads (watch the toppings and dressing) instead of desserts and dishes with heavy sauces.

When cooking in large batches, freeze food that you will not serve right away. This way, you will not be tempted to finish eating the whole batch before the food goes bad. And you will have ready-made food for another day. Freeze leftovers in amounts that you can use for a single serving or for a family meal another day.

Try to eat meals at regular times. Skipping meals or leaving large gaps of time between meals may lead you to eat larger amounts of food the next time you eat.

When buying snacks, go for fruit or single-serving prepackaged items and foods that are lower-calorie options. If you buy larger bags or boxes of snacks, divide the items into single-serve packages right away so you won’t be tempted to overeat.

When you do have a treat like chips or ice cream, measure out only one serving as shown by the food label. Eat only 1/2 cup of ice cream or 1 ounce of chips, eat them slowly, and enjoy them!

How can I control portions when money is tight?

Eating better does not have to cost a lot of money. Here are some ways you can keep track of your portions without adding extra costs to your grocery bill:

Buy meats in bulk. When you get home, divide the meat into single-serving packages and freeze for later use.

Buy fruits and vegetables when they are in season. Buy only as much as you will use, so they will not go bad. Check out your local farmers market; it may be less expensive than a grocery store.

For more information about health issues, visit www.nih.gov.