Portion Control: Plate Size, Containers, and More

Size Matters: Simple Ways to Pare Portions

Learn to cut calories and pump up the volume

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Do you remember the days when a fast-food meal meant a small paper bag of French fries, a burger that fit into the palm of your hand, and an 8-ounce soft drink?

Maybe I'm aging myself when I recall the days before "super-sizing." Back in the days of yore, we got up from our seats to change TV channels (all four of them), opened the garage door by hand, and walked to neighborhood destinations. We were also a thinner, healthier nation.

Portions alone did not get us into this obesity epidemic. We're overweight thanks to a combination of technological advances; more demands on our time; convenient drive-through eateries; and sheer exhaustion at the end of busy days, which leaves little initiative for physical activity. Too much food and too little activity got us into trouble, and we need to find a way to control these factors.

Portion control is one of the easiest ways to cut calories. The most accurate way to keep track of your portions is by pulling out the measuring cups and spoons. But when measuring devices aren't handy, use this guide to guesstimate portion sizes:

  • Hockey puck = half bagel
  • Clenched fist = 1 cup rice or pasta
  • Tennis ball = 1 serving of fruit or vegetable or 3/4 cup pretzels
  • Two cupped hands together = 1 cup salad
  • Light bulb = 1/2 cup fresh, frozen, or canned fruit
  • 4 dice = 1 ounce cheese
  • Deck of cards = 3 ounces meat, fish or poultry
  • Golf ball/walnut in its shell/shot glass = 2 tablespoons peanut butter, mayonnaise, or soft margarine
  • Tip of your thumb/bottle cap/stamp = 1 teaspoon of oil, butter, or salad dressing
  • Baseball = 1 cup cereal, berries, or popcorn
  • Half a baseball = 1/2 cup cooked rice or pasta, or 1/2 cup tomato sauce
  • CD case = 1 slice bread
  • CD = 1 ounce cheese or lunch meat

Larger Portions, Fewer Calories?

The standard dieting format goes like this: Dieter decides to lose weight, drastically cuts calories, then feels ravenous all the time until she reaches the breaking point -- when she throws in the towel and goes right back to her old ways. Sound familiar?

No one can withstand hunger gnawing away at them all day; ultimately, hunger wins and you splurge. Yet if you choose your foods carefully, you can eat more for fewer calories. The trick is to eat foods with low density, an idea that author and Pennsylvania State University researcher Barbara Rolls calls "volumetrics."

Here's the premise: Foods that contain lots of water help you feel satisfied. Water in foods dilutes the calories (or energy density) and increases the bulk, so you can eat more for fewer calories. Foods naturally rich in water ­ fruits; vegetables; beans; low-fat or skim milk; vegetable soups; and lean meats, fish and poultry -- are the basis of a low-density, high-volume eating plan.

A perfect example is a 100-calorie portion of either 2 cups of grapes or 1/4 cup raisins. The grapes are plump with fluids, higher in volume, and much more satisfying than the more calorie-dense and less-satisfying portion of raisins (don't discount the fact that we eat with our eyes as well as our mouths; foods that appear larger, like the grapes, make us feel more satisfied).

Fiber is another excellent way to increase volume and satisfaction. If you go for foods high in water and in fiber, your diet will be nourishing, satisfying, and low in calories.

Foods without much water are higher in density, meaning they have more calories per ounce. High-fat foods are high-density foods, since fat has more than twice as many calories as protein or carbohydrates. If your eating plan includes high-fat or otherwise energy-dense foods, you'll have to eat smaller portions if you want to cut calories.

Here are some ways to pump up the volume of the foods you eat so you'll feel more satisfied for fewer calories:

  • Top your sandwiches with greens, sliced cucumbers, or tomatoes.
  • Eat an entree salad for lunch.
  • Snack on baby carrots or grape tomatoes.
  • Top cereal or yogurt with fresh fruit.
  • Have a skinny cappuccino for dessert.
  • Start your meal with a vegetable soup or salad.
  • Enjoy a green or fruit salad alongside your fast-food sandwich.
  • Crunch on air-popped popcorn instead of pretzels as a snack.
  • Eat fresh fruit instead of drinking fruit juice.

At the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic, we believe it's important to include your favorite foods if you want to be successful at weight control. We also recognize that some of these favorite foods are brimming with calories.

Portion control is critical, both for those "splurge" foods and your day-to-day eating plan. If you want to eat more food, choose foods that are higher in volume and lower in density. You don't have to change your eating plan; just choose higher-volume options and see for yourself how satisfying it is to eat the low-density way.

Published June 17, 2005.

©2005 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.



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