Are portion control and serving sizes your keys to losing weight?

Understanding portion sizes can be one of your keys to both eating healthier and losing weight. If you’re taking the effort to walk 30-minutes a day or more, build off of that hard work by choosing proper portions and eating a bit healthier. If you’re having trouble losing weight by walking, you could be accidentally eating too much without knowing it! Understanding portion sizes will give you an idea of how much you should be eating in one sitting and how to fill your plate so that you eat healthier even if you’re not counting calories.

If you make a practice of knowing what a healthy portion looks like, you feel better eating the foods you love by knowing that you’re eating them in moderation. Combined with an active lifestyle, including a walking program, you can get healthier, feel great and even lose weight by walking more!

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Portion Sizes and Serving Sizes

Healthy meal with proper ingredient portions

According to, portion size is the amount of a food you choose to eat, while serving size is a measured amount of a food that’s displayed on a food label or something similar.

While there are recommended portion sizes for healthier eating, technically you can choose any portion size that you like. If you’re cooking at home, you decide how much to put on your plate or how much to serve yourself. Restaurants usually don’t give you the option to decide how big portions are, but there are no set rules that define how much pasta or how much salad they should give you for one order.

Serving size is the “recommended” amount of a food item that a food producer suggests that you eat. It’s usually either measured by weight (e.g. 30 grams), volume (10 oz), or a measuring unit (3/4 cup). Sometimes it’s measured in a number of pieces (e.g. 3 cookies). Packaged food is supposed to list the serving size, the number of servings in the larger package, and the nutrition values for the food item.

Understanding Portion Sizes

Healthy plate proportions graphic concept
moibalkon / Shutterstock

Understanding proper portion sizes allows you to build healthier meals by recognizing how much of various types of foods you should eat in a single meal. Portion sizes can help you recognize when restaurant meals are bigger than they need to be, and when the various items are not in the proper proportions. This can help you eat healthier and reduce calories consumed without having to measure and count everything that you eat.

There are several great infographics that help you visualize portion sizes in a way that’s easy to remember. Healthy does a great job of explaining portion size with a useful infographic. It allows you to estimate the serving size for various foods by using your hands.

  • Fruits – one fist
  • Leafy green veggies – two fists
  • Other veggies – one fist
  • Starchy carbs like rice or noodles – one handful
  • Bread – a slice the size of a flat hand
  • Proteins like meat, fish & beans – palm of the hand
  • Nuts or nut butter – one thumb
  • Dairy products like cheese – one pointer finger
  • Milk or yogurt – one fist

The Harvard School of Public Health also developed a useful diagram that you can print and post on your fridge to help you stick to proper portion control. The “Healthy Eating Plate” divides the plate into 4 portions with the largest section dedicated to vegetables (not including starchy carbs like potatoes). The next two equally sized sections are for lean protein and grains or carbs. Fats and oils are to be used sparingly. While this doesn’t help you visualize the size of your plate, it helps create meals that are higher on healthier, lower-calorie options like leafy green veggies.

How can proper portions help with a walking weight loss program?

Group of people power walking in a city park
goodluz / Shutterstock

Walking is a great way to help control your weight or lose weight through exercise. It will always be the case that’s it’s easier to eat calories than it is to burn off calories by walking. This means that managing your calorie intake (through proper portions) is at least as important as walking for weight loss. Once you start eating better portions, your diet will be healthier and you’ll build off your walking routine. You can still eat most of the foods you love, so long as you eat the right amount. Serving slightly smaller portions and other small changes are easier to sustain long term than most “diets.”

Not everyone wants to precisely measure their foods or keep a log of their calorie count. Estimating portion sizes is an easier way to get a sense of how much you’re eating. Using your hand as a measure, you can eyeball whether you should save half of your restaurant meal, or how much you should serve yourself at your family dinner.

How much should you eat every day?

The USDA recommends a healthy diet that focuses on whole grains, low-fat dairy, fresh fruits, and leafy vegetables. The following are the suggested serving and portion sizes for the average adult eating 2000 calories a day. Your specific calorie needs may vary based on age, physical activity level, and underlying health conditions. This great calculator can help you determine a good starting calorie number.

  • Fruits – 2 cups
  • Veggies – 2 1/2 cups
  • Grains – 6 ounces, half of which should be whole grains
  • Protein – 5 1/2 ounces, including vegetarian sources such as beans and nuts
  • Dairy – 3 cups including low-fat dairy options

Having a sense of how big portions should be and what your plate should look like is a great way to eat healthier without having to meticulously count calories. There are other ways that portion sizes can help you eat healthier as well.

How have portion sizes changed?

Small and big pasta dishes - portion size concept

Being aware of how portion sizes have changed through the years can also help us to understand why past generations struggled less with their weight than we do a generation obsessed with working out and dieting. Your Weight Matters explains that over the last 20 years, the American diet has changed dramatically. Whereas in the 1970s people ate about 2,160 calories per day, we now ingest an average of 2,673 calories daily. This means we are eating 20-25% more today than we did in the ’70s. Some of the reasons for this change is that many foods became cheaper, while portions got bigger to give more value for consumers.

This doesn’t mean that you have to eat giant portions, however!

Useful tips: avoid “calorie traps”

“Serving size” and calorie counts

Close up on nutrition facts label
alexskopje / Shutterstock

The nutrition labels on many foods often give the calorie count for “one serving” of that particular food. Many people peruse the label to check the calorie count and fat content but don’t pay close to attention to the actual serving size of the food. While labels do explain serving size and how many servings are in one package, it’s easy to miss and often hard to visualize.

A bag of snack chips might report only 140 calories per serving, but many people don’t notice that the full bag of chips might contain 7 servings. That means that if you just skimmed the label and ended up eating the entire bag, you’d be eating not 140 calories but actually 980 calories!

Big restaurant portions

Diner cutting a giant cheese pizza

Don’t just accept that restaurant-sized portions are properly sized portions of food. When you place your order, visualize the plate and how much space will be occupied by starchy carbs and veggies. You can greatly control how your plate is portioned by choosing plenty of leafy green or non-starchy vegetables in the place of carb-heavy sides. Once your food arrives, take an inventory of the sizes of the respective food items. If an item is much bigger than what you know is a good estimate of portion size, try eating half and taking the rest home to eat later.

Don’t feel the need to finish your plate if you know that your meal is way too big. You’ll often find that forcing yourself to eat huge portions just makes you feel sick later on.

Final thoughts

By reducing calorie intake through portion control and increasing calorie expenditure through a walking routine, we can reap the benefits of a lighter and fitter physique and potential reversal of weight-related health conditions.

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