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Size matters, especially when it comes to how much food we eat.
Problem is, our idea of “normal” portions are skewed.
“Years ago, when you would go to McDonald’s the value meal was a cheeseburger. Now it’s a double cheeseburger,” says Felicia Hackett, R.D. at weight-loss center Hilton Head Health. “It’s become normal for us to eat those larger sizes.”
The United States is the most obese country in the world, not only because of what we eat, but how much of it we are eating.
“When I go over portions with my clients many are often shocked by the difference in how much they have been eating verses how much they should be eating,” says nutritionist Cathy Deimeke, R.D. at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona.
But correct portion sizes can vary from person to person. Age, gender, weight, height and activity levels all weigh in. Measuring foods is the best way to serve up accurate portions, but visual comparisons help them stick in our brains — so they don’t stick to our waists.
Before you next chow down, check our guide for some common food favorites.
(All portions are based on a standard 2,000 calorie-per-day diet)
Serving of Steak
Red meat has been linked to cancer, but it does supply the body with vital nutrients, such as amino acids necessary to build and repair tissue and enzymes that prevent illness. But don't fill your plate with steak. A 2.5-ounce piece of cooked steak —about the size of a deck of cards — provides about half the protein an adult needs in a daily diet, for a mere 110 calories.
The same numbers hold true for 2.5-ounce skinless chicken breast or a 2-ounce cooked, lean burger (or a regular burger cut in half). Both also under 110 calories.
Portion tip: At restaurants, ask your server to cut your meal in half and wrap the other half, so you don’t even see it before you take it home, advises nutritionist Keri Glassman, R.D. and founder of Nutritiouslife.com.
“What’s not on your plate, you can’t eat. Plus, you’ll get a second meal out of it," she says.
Cereal is the most popular breakfast. Not only is it super convenient, it's tasty and can be nutritious. Whole grain options are a key source of fiber, protein and Vitamins A, B6, B12 and D, multi-tasking ingredients that provide the body with essential energy and help to balance the sugar levels in our blood.
But because cereal pours out so fast and tends to be lightweight, most people accidentally double the serving size. A portion should be one cup of plain cereal (like Cheerios), about the same as the size of a baseball or standard coffee mug.
This equals one serving of grains/carbohydrates, about 200 calories. Pair it with ½ cup of skim milk, 45 calories and 4.5 grams of protein.
Portion tip: Measure out the portion, then pour it into the bowl, says Deimeke. “That becomes your go-to bowl for cereal or whatever.”
Hummus and pita chips
Hummus, a dip made from chickpeas, is one of the most popular snacks in the U.S.
Chickpeas are rich in protein, which helps balance blood sugar levels, reduce cravings and lower cholesterol.
Two tablespoons of hummus —about the same size as a shot glass — equals one portion of both protein and carbohydrates and is equivalent to 70 calories. Add on 10 pita chips, about 130 calories, and you’ve still got a healthy, low-cal snack.
Portion tip: “Ruin your appetite” with hummus, suggests Glassman. “Have a snack before an hour or two before your meal so you aren’t ravenous when you sit down to eat.
Leafy greens are low in calories and high in nutrients. But a healthy portion of salad dressing or oil shouldn’t exceed 2 tablespoons, about the same size as the base of an iPhone charger. This is roughly 90 calories.
If we don't allow some indulgences, we have a harder time sticking to our diets. When it comes to the candy aisle, gummy bears are one of the better options. They don’t contain fat and a serving (about 17 pieces of Harbo Gummy Bears) contains 3 grams of protein from the gelatin, with only 130 calories. Placing them in a box of Altoids serves up the perfect portion size.
Portion tip: “Control your environment,” says Deimeke. “Only buy what you are willing to indulge in. If you have a chocolate cake on the counter, you’re going to go back and nibble and eventually it’s gone.”
Buying smaller sizes of healthier snacks keeps you in a fail-free zone.
The crisp shell of a bagel with its warm soft dough inside is delicious. But portion control is key. The recommended serving size of a bagel is about the same size of a compact mirror. An easy way to measure it out is to cut the bagel in fourths and then only eat one section.
This is the equivalent of one serving of carbohydrates and 270 calories.
Portion tip: Opt for a mini bagel, which is the same portion size as a standard bagel cut into four sections.
The average American eats 20 pounds of pasta a year! That proves most of us don’t practice portion control with this tasty carb.
The upside is pasta provides us with carbohydrates (an important source of energy), fiber, vitamins (like B-9) and minerals (like selenium and manganese) that boost our energy, balance blood sugar and encourage the production of red blood cells.
Instead of a filled-to-the-brim bowl, stick with a one serving of whole grain pasta. A serving is half a cup (1/2 cup) — about the same size as a hockey puck — and comes in at about 70 calories.
Portion tip: Use a measuring cup as a serving spoon.