If you’re looking to drop pounds, don’t believe your eyes when it comes to serving size.
Why? Because particularly in junk-food saturated American culture, “a lot of people have grown up with really big portion sizes, and that’s what they’re comfortable seeing,” says Emily O’Neil, MPH, RD, weight loss coach at the Austin Diagnostic Clinic in Austin, Texas.
For most of us, losing weight isn’t about changing what food we eat, but how much we eat of it. That means re-establishing our expectations of what a normal portion size should be, explains portion-size expert Lisa Young, PhD, RD, adjunct professor at New York University and author of "The Portion Teller."
Fortunately, experts like O’Neil and Young are around to help us with strategies for eating the right amount — even when faced with foods we consider “taboo” on a diet. (We’re looking at you, mashed potatoes!)
A quick note before we dig in: Know that there’s a difference between portion size and serving size. Portion size is what you actually eat at a sitting, while serving size corresponds to a nutrition label measurement. (If you’re counting calories, it’s important to pay attention to both numbers in order to get an accurate idea of how much you’re consuming.)
The next time you find yourself grabbing something sweet, salty, smooth or crunchy, remember the guidelines outlined below.
1. Make a fist.
When it comes to the stuff we label “junk” that lurks in the back of the pantry, Young says to stick to portions no bigger than 1 cup. The easy way to do this is to use your fist as a guide to approximate what one cup looks like. “Your hands are always with you,” she points out. Apply this suggestion to starches such as rice, pasta or potatoes at mealtimes, too.
2. Stay single.
No, you don’t have to break up with your beloved to lose weight. But Young does recommend paying a little bit more for pre-portioned, single-serve snack items such as chips, pretzels, nuts and ice cream (hello, Ben and Jerry’s mini cups!) if you can.
“When I counsel families, I always recommend single-serve popsicles,” says Dr. Young. “If you sit down with a pint of ice cream, all but the most disciplined among us will eat the entire thing.”
3. Create your own snack packs.
Even if a food is healthy, like nuts, it’s important to remember that it has calories, says Dr. Young. And if you’re trying to lose weight, calories count. Invest in snack-size baggies and portion out single servings so they’re ready when you need them.
Buying in bulk could also help you save money. “Just don’t do it in a weak moment, or you’ll find yourself eating straight out of the bag,” she adds. “It’s been shown that we eat more when we’re presented with bigger portions.”
4. Bake it down.
There’s nothing like homemade baked goods to bring out the kid in us. But it’s all too easy to overindulge when presented with an entire cake. Here’s where muffin tins come to the rescue. Divide the recipe to make only one cupcake or muffin per person.
5. Switch your spoons.
Admit it — you use your oversized spoons for more than soup. Choose smaller teaspoons instead, particularly for calorie-rich treats like ice cream. “Research shows we eat less if we use a teaspoon instead of a tablespoon,” says Young.
Another scoop on spoons? “I also love portioning spoons for serving,” she says. “You don’t even have to think about serving size.” Weight Watchers offers an attractive serving set for easy at-the-table portioning.
6. Pick smaller plates.
The “spoon rule” holds true for plates. “We see over and over again that people who eat dinner from 10-inch rather than 12-inch plates — and don’t go back for seconds — have an easier time keeping portion sizes reasonable,” Young says.
Ready to downsize your stoneware? Take the Small Plate Movement’s one-month challenge.
7. Nix certain foods if necessary.
Finally, whether or not you can eat certain foods without overindulging might depend on how much hold they have on you, asserts research neuroscientist and food addiction expert Nicole Avena, PhD, author of "Why Diets Fail."
“For some people, no amount of portion control is going to work. In those cases, I suggest abstinence,” she says. That is, if you absolutely know that you’re going to burn through an entire tin of honey-roasted cashews in 24 hours, don’t put it in your cart.
But don’t mourn your favorites just yet. Once you get your cravings in check, you may be able to carefully add small amounts of these binge-triggering foods back into your diet to enjoy occasionally, Avena says.
After all this advice, Young offers just one more suggestion: Before you even reach for that treat you're craving, ask yourself, “Am I really hungry?” “It’s so simple, but people don’t ask themselves that question before they dig in. At the end of the day, it’s the simplest things that really matter."
What Do YOU Think?
What strategies do you use to keep your portion sizes in check? Which suggestion did you find most helpful? Do you have any other advice to share with our community? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!