There are lots of ways to say it: Portion control, everything in moderation, calories in/calories out. Although it wouldn’t be healthy, you could eat donuts all day long if the portion sizes were reasonable and met your daily caloric requirement. Although weight loss is a mystery to lots of us, when it comes down to it the idea is simple — it’s just hard to put into practice: Keep your portions small, and you won’t gain weight.
So what exactly is a “small” portion? And isn’t just hearing the word “small” an instant turnoff? It’s almost like the word “diet” itself. Lots of women only have to hear the word diet before they start feeling instantly deprived and begin hoarding calories as a sort of last supper. Pizza, ice cream, cookies, Coke, give it all to me now, and fast — I’m about to have to face a grim reality. Portion control basically refers to the calories in versus the calories out. With skyrocketing obesity rates in our country and others, it’s clearly something we need to repeat over and over, ingrain into our brains and make into a daily (or several-times-a-day) mantra.
Below are some accurate healthy portion sizes. Don’t be shocked if you have to cut back on something you love — just try filling up on high-fiber foods as your sides, or foods that naturally contain a lot of water — like broth-based soup, watermelon or salad. It is doable, and we can all use some help combating the outrageous portion sizes that have developed during the past 50 years.
- Boneless, skinless chicken breast: Three ounces, or about the size of a deck of cards or the palm of your hand. What’s good with chicken? Healthy, filling brown rice and sauteed veggies are perfect. Make a stir-fry out of it!
- Whole grains (notice I don’t even mention the white kind): The obvious is one piece of sliced bread — Ezekiel is by far my favorite, it’s so filling — but when it comes to pasta, the correct portion size is actually only one-half cup. Gasp! I know that only sounds like a little, and it better be whole wheat, but again — throw some veggies into the mix. Try a red sauce with eggplant, my new favorite, or sauteed zucchini and peppers. Note: If you’ve saved on carbs during the rest of the day, perhaps you can afford to splurge on a bit more now (1-1.5 cups, max). For whole-wheat crackers, you can top them with low-fat cheese, add a piece of fruit, below, and you have yourself quite a healthy snack.
- Fresh fruit (again, notice I say fresh — I’m a big advocate of eating in-season local produce, but frozen is OK if you’re on a budget; just avoid anything canned in heavy syrup): Your obvious choice again is one unit. An apple, an orange or a pear is great. They should be about the size of a tennis ball, so if you have a giant Pink Lady or a mammoth banana, count it as two servings. Now, it is actually hard to eat too much fruit. But remember the calories in/calories out equation. If all of your fruit is oversized, it could very well throw your food budget out of whack. For fresh-cut fruit OR 100% fruit juice, limit yourself to one-half cup again.
- Fresh veggies: Here’s where you get to go big. Noshing on spinach, kale, and romaine lettuce or mustard greens is ideal. In fact, you can eat two whole cups! If numbers are your game, veggies are the winner. Looking to crunch on some raw celery or carrots? Cut it back to just one cup, which will also fill you up — trust me. For chopped, cooked or canned vegetables (watch the sodium in anything canned), stick to the ever popular one-half cup. That number keeps coming up, doesn’t it? Not hard to remember, so don’t use it as an excuse when you’re on the go.
- Low-fat dairy: When drinking 1% or skim milk, you can guzzle a hefty cup-full. Low-fat or fat-free yogurt can be consumed in the same quantity, but avoid yogurt with the fruit already mixed in. Try Greek yogurt, or mix fruit, honey or maple syrup into plain yogurt — even skip the vanilla flavor there because it’s likely unnatural and code for pure sugar. For low-fat cheeses (mozzarella, feta, etc.), eat just one ounce, or about the length and width of your index finger.
- Skinless fish: Three ounces, just like chicken. My favorites are the Mahi-mahi, cod and wild Alaskan salmon. Do not eat farmed fish, no matter how many times “they” tell you to eat tilapia or catfish. It’s just not safe in the long run because we can’t be sure of the side effects of all those chemicals in fish farms. If you’re a big fish eater, stick to the wild kind.
- Beans and legumes: Serve up one-half cup, or about the size of an ice cream scoop. Canned beans (rinse first, please) are delicious in salads or with rice for a simple vegetarian meal. Heat and season them with a little olive oil, cumin and chili powder and you have a great Southwestern-style entree or side, and it’s a complete package — protein, whole grains from your rice and healthy fats in the oil. Who can beat that? Toss in some onions or, better yet, stuff the mixture inside a tomato or pepper, bake it in the oven and you even have your veg taken care of.
Until you’re comfortable eyeballing portion sizes, keep the measuring cups handy. There’s no shame in that. And, of course, when you’re out at a restaurant or the quantity is out of your control, first try eating half of what’s been served to you. Eat slowly, taking it all in, put down your fork in between bites, you know the drill. If you’re still hungry, try eating half of that half. Continue that process (or not) and you’ll be much more conscious of your satiety level so you can know when to stop.
What’s the other side of the coin? Remember that phrase “everything in moderation.” It can apply to most foods (except for trans fats, for example), but it’s also something you have to learn. If you can stick to one pour of wine (four ounces or a little bit less than half of a standard glass), have it with dinner. If you don’t immediately devour all evidence of chocolate once it’s in the house, have a square or two for dessert. But remember, until you have a good idea of the calories you need to maintain or lose weight, you should try the measuring and counting thing. Once you’ve got these portion sizes down, it’s a bit of knowledge you’ll never forget.