Here’s how to avoid these common portion size mistakes and help yourself lose weight.
While you may think that what you eat is the key to good health, how much you eat is just as important. As a nutritionist, I think all foods are appropriate, but portion control is important for most of them.
With the exception of water, whole fruits and non-starchy vegetables – after all, no one gains weight by eating too many carrots or berries – to optimize health, maintain weight or even lose a few pounds, it’s important to pay attention to how much you put on or in your plate.
It’s so easy to eat too much because portions have greatly increased in the last 50 years, and we are surrounded by huge portions that have become the norm. As I wrote in my book “Finally Full, Finally Slim,” many bagels and muffins are now the equivalent of five slices of bread, and a regular steak at a restaurant can weigh a pound and contain protein for days to come.
The good news is that paying attention to how much food constitutes a healthy serving size, eating mindfully and guided by your inner wisdom and hunger level can help with weight loss. In my private practice, I have counseled hundreds of clients who often make common portion size mistakes. Here I cite five of them, along with simple ways to avoid them.
1. You pour just enough granola to fill your cereal bowl.
Consider this scenario. You’re rushing to work or picking up the kids for school or camp, you sit down for breakfast, and you pour granola into your cereal bowl. When was the last time you measured it out or checked the nutrition label before pouring it into the bowl?
Most of us pour too much of all kinds of cereal into our breakfast bowls, but granola in particular tends to be high in calories, fat and sugar. Granola can easily contain more than 500 calories per cup. And it’s very easy to pour a cup or two of granola into your bowl without even noticing it.
Solution: Yes, you can eat granola, but I would suggest using it as a yogurt topping or adding it to cereal. Because it contains so many calories, a healthy serving size is about ¼ cup, which is about two shots. I would also suggest keeping measuring cups on hand and using them from time to time to have an idea of what a serving really looks like.
If you’re ambitious, you can even make your own granola using oatmeal, mild vegetable oil, maple syrup, cinnamon, vanilla, dried fruit and your favorite nuts. Don’t expect it to be low in calories, but it will taste better, be preservative-free, and likely have less added sugars than most store-bought varieties.
2. You love nuts, but you eat too many of them.
You may have heard about the beneficial effects of eating heart-healthy fats like nuts. Nuts also contain fiber, protein, and many vitamins and minerals, including vitamin E and magnesium. However, you think they are good for you-and they are-and so you eat too many of them. Unfortunately, because nuts are high in fat, calories pile up pretty quickly. For example, I’ve seen clients who ate a cup of nuts in one sitting, which can contain 800 calories. A healthy serving is about an ounce or ¼ cup and contains 150-200 calories.
Solution: Buy nuts in their shells if possible. They take longer to eat and you see the shell on your plate, which is a great reality check. In one study, subjects who were given pistachios in the shell ate 41 percent fewer calories than those who were given pistachios in the shell. Sometimes measure a ¼ cup serving. That’s about 20 almond nuts or 50 pistachios.
Although you don’t need to weigh and measure your food all the time – after all, who has time for that? – But by doing it a few times, you’ll be able to figure out how many nuts you’re eating. A convenient visual representation of the ideal serving of nuts is about a handful. And since it’s not an exact science, if you have a big hand you can probably afford to eat a little more.
3. You stock up on large packages of snack foods, such as chips.
Buying large packages of snack foods is often a bargain. Since it is cheap for the manufacturer to produce ultra-processed foods like chips, you, the consumer, often have to pay a few cents more for a large package. While it’s a great idea to buy paper towels in bulk, I wouldn’t recommend doing it for food, especially junk food. Studies show that we eat more – often a lot more! – from large bags and don’t feel more satiated.
Solution: Leave large snack packs on the shelf and buy single serving packets. Here’s another option if you have a large family and can benefit from the savings of buying larger sizes. When you first open the bag, divide the contents into individual portions and store them in smaller bags or containers. A serving of snack chips is one ounce, which is about one cup. Another idea is to make your own popcorn, which is a healthy whole grain snack, and you can enjoy a 3-cup serving, which is one ounce.
4. You add a whole avocado to your salad.
Just as nuts contain heart-healthy fats, so do avocados. This delicious green fruit is high in monounsaturated fats, fiber, and vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, potassium, and vitamin E.
But as healthy as they are, their caloric content quickly increases. The average avocado contains about 250 calories. These days, people are adding avocados to everything from smoothies to cakes, as well as spreading them on toast.
And yes, there’s no such thing as too much of a good thing. Although avocados are rich in healthy fats, they contain just as many calories as fats that can clog arteries, so it’s important to observe moderation. Adding a whole sliced avocado to a salad is a sure way to overdo it, especially if you’re also adding dressing to the salad.
Solution: Include avocado in your meal plan, but eat it in smaller portions. I would suggest spreading it on whole-grain toast or adding ¼ of a medium avocado to a salad. Although avocado is technically a fruit, think of it as fat, and a little is a lot. A small portion will help you feel full. Fat and fiber are a very hearty, delicious and winning combination. Balance it with a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables.
5. You eat ice cream right out of the container.
Who doesn’t love ice cream, especially during the summer months? A common mistake I see many people make is taking a pint of ice cream out of the freezer, picking up a spoon and starting to eat it. Pretty soon they eat the whole container. Eating right out of the container is one of the easiest ways to overeat.
Solution: Separate a scoop of ice cream (about ½ cup), put it in a small bowl, sit down and enjoy it. Take time to enjoy each bite. Using a teaspoon instead of a tablespoon may also help. Speaking of ice cream: choose the one you like best and enjoy the real thing, eschewing the “diet” versions, which often don’t taste very good. It’s much better to eat a smaller portion of a dessert you love than a larger portion of one you don’t like.
The 5 most common mistakes people make when choosing a serving size:
- You pour just enough granola to fill your cereal bowl.
- You eat too many nuts.
- You stock up on large bags of snacks, such as chips.
- You add a whole avocado to your salad.
- You eat ice cream straight out of the container.