How much is too much? Portion control and getting the balance right.

When was the last time you actually felt hungry? The stomach-rumbling emptiness of proper hunger? Have we all forgotten what that feels like?

It’s no secret that ‘super-sizing’ is taking over the food industry. Extra large portions, huge plates, all you can eat buffets and bottomless brunches are everywhere. It has become completely normal to pile a plate high and expect second helpings. But what has this culture of excess done to our understanding of control and do we really know what a healthy, balanced plate of food looks like?

portions

Portions

I’m often asked by clients for meal ideas, recipes, the right kinds of foods to eat and most frequently to give them an indication of HOW MUCH of the right foods to eat. Most of us don’t want to count calories incessantly throughout the day, so getting the portion sizes right will give you the control that you need without carrying a notepad and calculator around with you.

When I answer that portion size question I am often met with looks of surprise and horror. We are so used to dining out in restaurants with colossal carb servings and buffets which give us a time limit to eat as much as we can, like some kind of Olympic sport, that the idea of a portion size anything less than ‘truckload’ is met with disbelief and a look of utter persecution.

So how much is enough? Here is a sample plate from which to base the macro-nutrient ratios of any meal, suitable for everyone (whether you’re wanting to lose weight or not).  Note: Although not shown here, imagine fat sprinkled around the edges of the plate in small quantities.

Portion control plate
1/2 non-starchy veg or salad, 1/4 protein, 1/4 carbs (Fat dotted around the rim of the plate in small quantities).

So what’s a portion?

Now we know the ratios but what about the volumes to go with this?

Note: Foods tend to contain more than one macronutrient (protein, fat and carbs) and a combination of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). For example: Salmon is a great protein source and also contains a good amount of good fats as well as vitamins and minerals. Quinoa is a carbohydrate source but also contains protein. Below I’ve shown a broad categorisation to keep it simple.

 

Carbohydrates

complex-carbohydrates

Firstly what do we mean by carbohydrates?

This is an often misunderstood term. You might imagine carbohydrates are things like pasta, rice, chips, bread. You’d be right, but carbohydrates cover much more than this.

If you imagine 3 main categories: White, brown and green.

White includes simple sugars in things like sweets, cakes, chocolate, sugary drinks (including most alcoholic drinks). Brown are starches (chains of sugars) in things like grains, pasta, rice, bread, potatoes. Lastly green are starchy vegetables like carrots, parsnips, turnips, pumpkin, courgette, butternut squash. Yes, these vegetables are forms of carbohydrate and excellent sources of fibre too (fibre is the only essential form of carb your body needs).

So when choosing a form of carbohydrate the best are the green, next are brown and the worst are the white. So limit your white and go for unrefined, complex brown carbs and even better choose green. This means you would be better choosing courgettes, pumpkin, or carrots instead of rice, pasta or potatoes.

So how much?

Well you can see from the plate above that only 1/4 of your plate should be made up of carbohydrates. But obviously the size of your plate will determine what 1/4 is! Well here are some helpful portion comparisons to put it into a healthy context.

  • Brown rice, whole wheat pasta, quinoa, couscous = 1 handful
  • Bread (choose brown, seeded, wholemeal NOT white) = 1 piece
  • Corn, carrots, courgettes = 3 heaped tablespoons
  • Cereal = 1 handful
  • Potatoes (better eating sweet potatoes) = small or half a medium potato
handful of rice
Handful of rice

 

Fats

fats

Despite popular belief fat is not a swear word. Fats are an essential macronutrient and should be eaten in moderation, in the correct form. So what is the correct form? Well we have saturated, unsaturated (mono and poly) and trans fats.

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated are the best forms to eat. Next best is saturated (still needed in moderation) and to be avoided at all costs are trans fats. Trans fats are partially hydrogenated fats and some do occur in small quantities in nature. Trans fats are produced as a result of a man-made process that manufacturers of low-fat spreads, low cal sprays and ‘low fat’ products use. Trans fats have been proven to have a more negative effect on our bodies than saturated fat.

Monounsaturated fats- Found in things like nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, olive oil

Polyunsaturated fats (Omega 3 and Omega 6)- Omega 3 fatty acids found in things like oily fish, eggs, walnuts, flaxseeds. Omega 6 fatty acids found in things like sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds

Saturated fats- Good sources in things like dairy, red meat, coconut oil.

So how much?

Moderation is key. Earlier I mentioned that there should be ‘a light sprinkling’ around the edges of the portion plate.

  • Olive oil = 1 tablespoon (used as a dressing or to cook with)
  • Butter = (ideally use organic, unsalted) very modest amount, around 2 teaspoons
  • Olives = 5-6 olives
  • Avocado = 1/5 of a medium
  • Nuts = small handful
tablespoon of olive oil
Tablespoon of olive oil

Protein

protein.jpg

Normally we don’t really know how much protein we should be eating, and even if we know the weight roughly, what does that actually look like?

Again, thinking about the plate, 1/4 of the plate should be protein. So what and how much?

Most of us (depending on exercise intensity, regularity and our individual fitness goals e.g. muscle gain, fat burn) require around 1g of protein per kg of body weight. So somebody weighing 60kg would require 60g of protein per day. This should be spread out evenly throughout the day, 20g at each mealtime (the foods shown below aren’t necessarily the full 20g, eating these in combination with other sources is advised, particularly if you’re eating a vegetarian or vegan diet).

So how much?

Meat, fish, poultry:

Salmon = to fit in the palm of your hand

Tuna steak = size of a deck of cards (or half a standard tin)

Beef steak, turkey, chicken breast = size of a deck of cards

White fish = size of a cheque book

Prawns = 8-10

meat and chicken size of a deck of cards
Meat and poultry the size of a deck of cards

Cheese, eggs and dairy:

Cottage cheese = 2-3 heaped tablespoons

Feta = matchbox size piece (crumble it to make it go further)

Cheddar = matchbox size piece

Greek Yoghurt = 3 tablespoons

Eggs = 1 large

Cheese-and-Matchbox
Cheese the size of a matchbox

 

Beans and Pulses:

Beans such as Pinto or Edamame = a handful

Lentils = a handful

 

Salad and Non-Starchy Vegetables

Salads and Veg

Half of your plate should be made up of salad and non-starchy veg like broccoli, kale, spinach, cucumber, peppers. 5 a day is the guideline, but eat more if you can. Non-starchy vegetables are packed with vitamins and minerals and some fibre, so will fill you up nicely.

Note: I haven’t included fruit in this category…. Although fruit is a healthy way to snack it is also high in sugar (simple carbohydrate) and so portion control is key here too.

Advisable fruit portions:

Small fruits = 2 satsumas, 2 plums, 2 kiwis, 7 strawberries, 14 cherries

Medium fruits = 1 apple, pear, orange

Large fruit = half grapefruit, 1 5cm piece of melon, 1 large slice of pineapple

7 strawberries
7 Strawberries

 

By making smarter choices that aren’t carb-centric, and ‘re-learning’ what a plate of food should actually look like, you’ll be on your way to a healthier diet, without starving yourself.

So if you start controlling the quantities instead of piling your plate high you can say goodbye to counting calories forever! Sounds good to me.

Comment below if you have any questions and please feel free to like the post!

3 thoughts on “How much is too much? Portion control and getting the balance right.

  1. Great information, just what i was looking for and no calorie counting, win win. Thsnks Donna, well written piece.

    Like

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