How to Use Portion Control to Lose Weight


Maintaining a healthy weight can be difficult in our "fast food nation" where many restaurant servings are enough for three people. Even if you try to follow recommended serving guidelines for the major food groups, controlling your portion sizes is a start to ensuring that you aren't eating too much and, ultimately, losing weight.

Keep in mind that exercise and a balanced diet must be part of any weight loss plan. As you probably know, fad diets and diet plans that are seemingly effortless rarely work. Simply watching what you eat is a time-tested way to lose weight. Portion control also promotes healthier eating habits and a healthy attitude toward food and dieting. (See also: Fitness for People Who Hate Exercise)

Here are some ways in which you can start sizing down rather than super-sizing your meal portions.

Use Smaller Plates

One of the best ways to control how much you eat is to use the "smoke and mirrors" method. If you are cooking at home, serving your meals on smaller plates will ensure you are not overeating. Pay attention to how much you put on your plate when serving food. Most people tend to fill the plate, so until you are more aware of your portion sizes, simply use a smaller dish. If you are dining out, this can be tricky, but you can always split an entree with your dining partner to cut down your portions and your bill.

Measure Out Your Food

If you want to be precise about your serving sizes, the best way to make sure you aren't eating more than the recommended amount is to use measuring cups and spoons. You can also purchase bowls and cups that have measurements right on them to make it easier, or you can just reuse bell jars and other food or drink containers that have built-in measurements.

Use Visual Guides

The Mayo Clinic recommends using visual cues for maintaining portion sizes. This is a quick and easy way to determine if you are eating healthy amounts, especially if you don't have time or the desire to measure out your portions. Try to use cues that are versatile and you will remember easily. A golf ball, for instance, is about the same size as some of the common standard servings — 1/4 of a cup of nuts, 2 tablespoons of salad dressing, or 1 oz. of dried fruit. It also helps to know if you are getting enough of the right kinds of foods, so check out the Mayo Clinic's recommended serving guidelines, or ask your doctor what he or she recommends.

Keep a Food Diary

Many doctors and nutritionists will tell you that keeping a food diary is one of the best ways to maintain a healthy weight. This does take some extra discipline, but if you have trouble being consistent, try using a notebook that is small enough to carry around with you. Pick one that looks visually appealing to you, or decorate it to make it more personal — anything that you will be more drawn to using. And if you are a gadget geek, you can even find fancy electronic diaries that do everything except eat for you. No matter how you choose to keep track of your daily food intake, just remember to list everything you eat, including how many servings and the total number of calories (as accurately as possible).

Read Labels

You might be surprised at what is considered a standard serving size, particularly if you are not a label reader. There are four servings in just one pint of Ben & Jerry's, for instance, and at 260 calories per serving, you will have consumed 1,040 calories if you polish off the pint in one sitting! That is over two-thirds of the amount of daily calories recommended for many people. If you aren't sure how many calories you need, you can easily find a calorie calculator that will determine how much you need to consume per day depending on your body type and lifestyle. Even if you aren't strict or precise about your serving sizes, it does help to be more aware of the serving sizes on food labels.

Don't Drink From the Carton

In addition to being aware of serving sizes, you are less likely to polish off that pint of ice cream if you don't eat right out of the container. How many times have you opened a bag of chips and suddenly realized you've just eaten the entire bag? While it may help to stay away from junk food if you are trying to lose weight, sometimes you do have to treat yourself. Use a dish for everything. Even healthy food or drinks can add a lot of calories to your diet if you aren't aware of how much you are consuming. So follow mom's orders, and don't drink milk from the carton.

Divide Snacks Into Smaller Portions

Eating right out of the bag can be dangerous, but you don't necessarily have to use a plate. Next time you open a large container of snacks, try immediately dividing the contents (chips, cookies, nuts, etc.) into individual servings in plastic bags or containers. Even pastries and other baked treats tend to be twice the size of what is recommended (a baseball for muffins and cupcakes), so they can be divided and placed into bags as well. Not only will this method keep your snack portions under control, it will also keep them fresher longer, and it saves time when packing lunches and snacks for work or school.

Take Leftovers Home

Most people don't want to waste food, which may be one of the reasons we tend to eat way too much when dining out. Use your visual cues to determine if you've just been served more than a reasonable amount of food (if you live in the U.S., most likely you have). Don't be afraid to ask the server to wrap it up. Plus, it's also a great way to budget food costs if you think of going out to eat as two meals in one. Even if you are eating at home, don't think you have to eat everything on your plate if you accidentally served yourself too much. Leftovers are a great way to stretch your meals and your dollar, and save time by adding another day that you don't have to cook.

Slow Down!

Whether you are dining out or eating in, slowing down while you eat will serve you (no pun intended) in a number of ways. When you eat more slowly, your stomach has time to tell your brain when it is full; therefore, you will eat less. Chewing slowly also improves your digestion, as it increases saliva production and gives your digestive tract more time to process the food. Slowing down ultimately increases your enjoyment of the meal, and in the end, a happy eater is a healthy eater.

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Meg Favreau's picture

I have a set of bowls with measurement lines on them marking a quarter cup, half cup, etc. As someone who isn't great at visualizing the right portions, I find them super helpful.

Does anybody have other suggestions for portion-control techniques that have helped you?

Guest's picture

I think the best way to keep track of how much you're eating is a food scale. Much more accurate than volume-based measurements. Plus, you don't have to get your set of measuring cups dirty for every single meal.

Guest's picture

A food scale and measuring cups/spoons are great investments. Your waistline shrink, your bank account grows, and you feel better knowing you're doing something good for your financial and physical health.

I use SparkPeople, the 100% FREE online health and wellness website to get tips and tricks, as well as meal and exercise programs, to manage my weight.

Guest's picture

Someone asked for hints on how to measure ones food without measuring. I used to be the director of a national diabetes project and the method I urged was developed for use in Africa where measuring devices aren't plentiful. In developing countries health aid workers use the Hand Jive method for portion measurements. It really works well for different body sizes, ie a large man needs more food than a small woman, however proportion should be the same. The way to measure -a fist is the serving of potato, pasta, rice etc. Your palm width, length, and thickness is a portion size for protein- meat, fish, etc. Cupped palm is a serving size of cooked veggies, and opened palms are the serving size for raw veggies ie the average serving size for a salad. Your wrist should be the diameter of a dinner roll. Fruit really doesn't require much "measuring" except for estimating size (small, medium, large) or counting berries, grapes, cherries and cherry tomatoes, etc.

Guest's picture

I have to say, I'm really disappointed to see something like this on this site. Just about every recommendation here is a form of unhealthy eating.

Guest's picture

An easy way to cut down on calories when dining out is to have an early dinner and eat off the lunch menu. Some restaurants, Olive Garden is one, will even let you order from the lunch menu during dinner hours.

Guest's picture

Other workouts to lose stomach fat that you can do at home include squats and sit-ups. These are the workouts for abs that are done at the gym but you can do them at home without spending hundreds of dollars for a personal trainer. Simply stand in an open area — a lounge room will do — with your arms relaxed by your side and your feet shoulder length apart. Make the motion like you’re going to sit on a chair and go down until your stomach makes a 90 degree angle with your knees. Keep repeating this motion for between five and ten minutes, then alternate with some jogging on the spot of other stretches.

Sit-ups are abs workouts that can be done in the privacy of your own home. A great tip to getting a good workout for your stomach early on in the sit-up process is to hold a heavy ball or package in your hands while you’re doing the sit-ups. This will help to strengthen your core as well as your upper arm muscles.

Guest's picture

Diets don't work because a diet is not a lifestyle change. Avoiding high fructose corn syrup, processed foods, is key. Instead of eating fast food or pre-made meals eat grass feds meats, cage free eggs, and organic produce. I don't watch my portion sizing or count carbs; however, since I eat healthy and exercise I can build muscle and keep the weight off. If you want to be healthy you have to live healthy, and just like personal finance there are no shortcuts.