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Portion control: The trick to a winning waistline

In the final installment of a three-part series on ‘Today,’ Rosemary Ellis of Prevention magazine shares some easy tactics to help improve your diet.

Looking to change your life? If so, you might be able to forget those hours in the gym or that crazy diet plan. The editors of Prevention magazine say making a few small changes can have a big impact. Rosemary Ellis, editorial director of Prevention, was invited to appear on “Today” for a special series on three ways to change your life. In this final installment of the series, she shares some insight and advice about portion control.

Why is making changes in the way we eat so challenging for many people?
Making food choices is difficult. It’s not like we are giving up something “cold turkey,” we still need to eat every day. People are trained to eat more and to eat larger portions, making it easier to overdo it.

Our food portions have significantly increased over the past 20 years. Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have found that soft drinks grew in size from 13 fluid ounces to 20 fluid ounces (adding 49 calories); hamburgers grew from 5.7 ounces to 7 ounces (adding 97 calories); and a Mexican food entrée grew from 6.3 ounces to 8 ounces (adding 133 more calories.)

What is the main concept behind portion control?  
Mainly, you don’t need to deny yourself as long as you keep portions in line. Eat what you like and don’t force yourself to eat what you don’t like. 

Another helpful hint: Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. How does this help with portion control?
Ideally, you should be eating nine vegetables and fruits a day.  By eating more vegetables with your meal you are filling up on the good-for-you food. 

If you don’t want to carry a scale everywhere you go, here are some other tricks for estimating portion size:

  • Baseball (equals one cup) — serving of carbohydrate (cereal, rice, pasta, potatoes, rolls, etc.)
  • 2 golf balls (about 1/2 cup) — serving of dessert like ice cream or pie
  • 2 to 3 CDs (about 2 to 3 ounces) — lunch meat, cheese slice for sandwich
  • Checkbook (about six ounces) — chicken, fish serving
  • Deck of cards (about four ounces) — serving of beef or pork
  • Diner coffee cup (about 8 fluid ounces) — serving of milk, yogurt, soups

And, there's an even simpler way to look at portion control by just using your plate:A good way to “eyeball” portion sizes on your dish is to think of having 1/2 of the plate filled with vegetables, 1/4 with protein and 1/4 with carbs. 

And what if you're dining out?

  • Don't get a bread basket.
  • Order two appetizers.
  • Split an entrée with someone else.
  • Have the restaurant pack half of your meal to go.

Need additional instant portion control?

You can simply use your hand:

  • A serving of cheese (1 oz) = size of your thumb
  • A serving of meat, poultry, or fish (3 oz) = size of your palm
  • A portion of fruit (1 cup) = your fist
  • A serving of rice, pasta (1 cup) = your fist
  • Nuts or pretzels (1 or 2 ounces) = your cupped hand

Eat from a smaller plate.  It will seem like you are eating more. When Penn State researchers served up large and half-sized portions of mac and cheese, people ate 30 percent less with the smaller serving but felt just as satisfied.

Avoid eating in front of the TV or computer, or while standing up. Sit down, pay attention to your food, and enjoy it.

When dining out, cut what you eat by 25 percent. As you lose weight, you need to consume fewer calories in order to keep the needle on the scale moving down, down, down. One trick experts swear by: When your food is served in a restaurant, look at your plate and eat only 75 percent of what's on it. "It's a small change that prevents overeating, and it can easily shave up to 300 calories off every meal," says James Hill, PhD, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado. Remember: You need to slash 500 calories a day to lose a pound a week; the "eat 75 percent" tactic will keep you way ahead of the game. 

Sit down and savor your meal.

If you're counting calories, buy cuts of meat that are naturally small, such as chicken or turkey cutlets or the dainty lamb chops, rather than breasts or roasts, to make portion control easier. If you're counting fat, divide servings (3 to 4 ounces) into even smaller portions so you can eat meat more frequently. Use recipes that incorporate meat as an ingredient in a dish rather than featuring meat as the centerpiece, and where possible, reduce the amount of meat called for in recipes by half.

Downsize dinnerware.  Extensive research shows that "people eat what's put on their plates, even if it's more than they need to satisfy their hunger," says Judith S. Stern, ScD, RD, professor of nutrition at the University of California, Davis. To avoid portion distortion, Stern recommends buying smaller dishes. "We need to bring back 8-ounce beverage glasses, 6-ounce coffee cups, and those little 6-ounce juice glasses — those are what serving sizes should be." Many popular brands such as Libbey and Pfaltzgraff sell 5- and 6-ounce juice glasses and 8-ounce beverage glasses. Save the 12-ounce glasses for water.

Hide the TV.  One of the best ways to avoid overeating and underexercising is to turn off the TV, says William Dietz, MD, pH, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Studies have shown that the more TV people watch, the less they move and the more they weigh. And if "Seinfeld" or "The Simpsons" are your nightly dinner companions, you're probably eating more too. Where your kids watch makes a difference in their weight too. Research shows that children with TVs in their bedrooms are more likely to be overweight.

Portion control: Getting started
Here is some more information from Prevention to help you get started:

Plate Power: Prevention's portion control plan

Order Anything: How to tame humongous restaurant portions

Eat Up, Slim Down: Choose high volume foods that satisfy your hunger