Losing weight is a two-step process. Step one is to eat healthy and step two is to use portion control. While that sounds easy, it’s not and takes a lot of effort and mental focus.
The easier step is the first one — to eat healthy. That means choosing a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, heart-healthy fats and fiber-rich starchy carbohydrates. Plus, the inclusion of a daily “treat” to keep eating fun and enjoyable, and to prevent deprivation. It’s a matter of swapping out processed foods loaded with hidden sugars and fats, and choosing nutrient-rich foods.
The harder step is portion control. Even the healthiest eater struggles with “portion distortion.” That’s because standard serving sizes, defined years ago by government standards, don’t match up to what we are all accustomed to seeing.
For starters, “what’s on your plate” doesn’t count as one serving. Studies show both “regular” people and health professionals do a poor job of estimating portion sizes — “eyeballing” doesn’t work, and people always underestimate their selected serving size. But there are simple and practical ways to help gauge smart-size portions — making it much easier to stay on track, whether it’s a meal, a snack or a treat.
1. Read the back-panel nutrition label
For any packaged foods, the serving size can be LESS than what the label suggests. So if you’re looking at a 1-cup serving of potato salad, feel free to cut it back to one-half cup and cut the calories in half — a nearly 200-calorie savings. That’s true for many side-dishes like mac and cheese, baked beans and other canned or packaged foods.
2. Think about “hand-y” portions
Your hand can be one of the best portion-control tools around. Always with you, it’s a great way to figure out basic amounts:
• closed fist = 1 cup of vegetables, cereal, pasta or rice
• palm of your hand = 3-4 ounces of meat, fish or poultry
• length of your thumb = 1 ounce of cheese
• bent thumb joint = 1 tablespoon of butter, oil or peanut butter
• handful = 1 ounce of nuts or pretzel sticks
3. Include everyday items for comparisons
Familiar items can be the perfect comparison for serving size control:
• baseball = 1 cup of vegetables, grains or yogurt
• tennis ball = 1 medium whole fruit
• poker chip = 1 tablespoon of condiments
• golf ball = 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, hummus or guacamole
• hockey puck = ½ cup serving of grains, yogurt or ice cream
• CD = 1 ounce slice of deli meat
• cassette tape = 1 ounce serving of bread
• computer mouse = 3-4 ounces of meat, chicken, poultry or tofu
• checkbook = 4-ounce fish fillet
• dental floss package = 1 ounce of chocolate, small brownie or cookie
4. Rate your plate
While individual food servings are a key to healthier eating, it’s always important to remember the overall portions for a healthy plate, based on the latest guidelines from the USDA.
• Fill half your plate with fruit and low-starch colorful vegetables of all kinds (potatoes, corn and peas are high-in-starch vegetables, so they belong in the starch group, below)
• Fill one-quarter of your plate with lean proteins, including beef, chicken, fish or tofu.
• Fill one-quarter of your plate with fiber-rich, whole-grain starches, like rice, beans, potatoes, corn, quinoa and bulgur.
Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD is NBC News Health and Nutrition Editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom.