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Food Portions: How Much Should I Eat?

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If we eat more than we need to, our bodies take in more calories than they can burn. And this is easy to do because we've become so used to seeing (and eating) large portions.

Why do restaurants and food manufacturers like to serve larger portions? Because customers like getting the best value for their money! But the value meal is no deal when it has too much fat, sugar, and calories and sets the stage for health problems.

People who consistently overeat are likely to become overweight. This increases their risk for medical problems like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, breathing problems, and even depression. Later in life, people who are overweight have a greater chance of having a heart attack or stroke.

So what can you do to keep portions under control? A good place to start is knowing about serving sizes and portion sizes of different foods.

Serving Sizes, Portion Sizes & Recommended Amounts

Serving sizes. Look at the label on any food package and you'll see a nutrition information section that gives a serving size for that food. The serving size is based on the amount of food people typically eat, not how much they should eat. Serving sizes help you see how many calories and nutrients — including fat, sugar, and salt — you get from eating a specific quantity of that food.

Sometimes the serving size on a package will be less than you eat.

Portion sizes. The portion size is the amount you do eat. In some cases, like vegetables, it's perfectly OK (and even a good idea) to eat a larger portion than the serving size listed on the package.

But when it comes to foods that are high in calories, fat, or sugar, the serving size can 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 people typically eat and the nutrition in that amount. Serving sizes don’t tell you how much to eat or which foods you need to stay healthy. That's where the U.S. Department of Agriculture's MyPlate comes in. It recommends the right mix and amount of food for you.

MyPlate is divided into four sections with dairy on the side to represent the 5 food groups:

  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • grains
  • protein
  • dairy

The ChooseMyPlate website offers guidelines to help people figure out how much of these foods they should eat based on age, weight, gender, and activity level.

How to Use MyPlate Every Day

Serving sizes on food labels and recommended amounts on the ChooseMyPlate site are usually given in grams, ounces, or cups. Of course, most of us don't carry around food scales and measuring cups. So how can we translate those amounts into portions we can relate to? That's where visual cues come in.

A great way to "see" appropriate portions is to use the concept of the "divided plate." Similar to MyPlate, think of your plate as divided into four sections:

  • One quarter (1 section) of the plate is for protein.
  • One quarter (1 section) of the plate is for starches (like potatoes and corn) and grains, preferably a whole grain (like brown rice and whole-wheat bread).
  • Half the plate (2 sections) is for veggies (or fruit and veggies).

None of the foods should overlap or be piled high. Dividing your plate like helps you keep portions under control and helps you eat a balanced meal.

Another easy way to size up portions is to use your hand as a guide:

  • A clenched fist is about 1 cup — and that's 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.

Portion-Control Tips

Being aware of the right portion sizes and using the "divided plate" method can help you avoid overeating. But it's not easy to use these visual cues with foods that are hard to measure, like a casserole or sandwich. It’s also hard to track portion sizes of foods like chips and cookies when you eat right out of the bag.

Try these tips to control portion sizes:

  • Eat your meals on a smaller plate so your meal looks larger. A sandwich on a dinner-size plate looks lost, but on an appetizer plate it looks downright hefty.
  • Avoid taking an entire bag of chips or a container of ice cream to the couch. You're much less likely to eat too much if you put your snack in a bowl, and sit at the table to eat it.
  • Don't eat in front of the TV or other screens.
  • Try single-serving size foods to help your body learn what a typical amount is.
  • Eat 3 well-balanced meals (with vegetables, fruit, proteins, and starch) and 1–2 healthy snacks at regular times throughout the day. Skipping meals or waiting too long between them can make you more likely to overdo it at the next meal.
  • Add more salads, other vegetables, and fruit to your diet, especially at the start of a meal. This can help control hunger and give a sense of fullness while controlling calorie intake.
  • Try not to rush through your meals. Eat slowly and chew well. Give yourself a chance to notice if feel full before you take more. If you do want seconds, go for more salad or veggies.
  • Be aware that most restaurant portions are much larger than you need. Try sharing meals with friends, ordering an appetizer as a main dish, or packing up the extra to take home before you begin to eat.
  • Don't be tempted to go for the giant value meal or the jumbo drink just because they're only a few cents more than the regular size.
  • Most important, make it a habit to let your stomach rather than your eyes tell you when you're done with a meal. Listen to your body's natural signals about when it's hungry and when it's full.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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