Portion control is hard. Most people overeat or even underestimate their daily caloric needs. There are numerous ways to keep track of your portions. From counting calories, tracking macros, weighing out your food, using the plate method, cups, or using your hands. These all work, some better than others.
It’s true, focusing on the correct portion sizes is important for meeting your goals. However, a healthy habit can quickly become an unhealthy obsession. As a nutritionist I tried almost all the techniques, and I can tell you some are easier than others. I generally don’t focus on tracking, as I said it can easily lead to unhealthy habits. Not to mention it’s time consuming. We’re busy people; things need to be simple. I’m going to give you a quick rundown on all the different types of tracking and share my opinions of why I like it and why I don’t.
Since the beginning of time counting calories has been a thing. Ok, maybe not that long, but I can say one of my first introductions to “healthy eating” involved the giant Food Counter book. I think I still have a copy on my shelf, almost as new as the day I got it. True, it’s thorough, but much like the “The Joy of Cooking” cookbook, it has limitations and can be dated fast. It’ll give you pages and pages of basic foods and popular brands (for the year published) with the complete breakdown of Calories, Fat, Saturated Fat, Cholesterol, Protein, Carbohydrates, Sugar, Fiber, and a few key vitamins and minerals. Which is all great if you have the time to search for each food, pull out the calculator and create a spreadsheet of your daily intake. Maybe this works for someone who eats the same few foods every day, but for me, this is only a useful tool if I need to look up one specific food when the power has gone out. Love me some paper books, but honestly Encyclopedia Britannica went out of print for a reason, everything we need to look up is on the internet now.
This brings me to our next set of trackers, all the tracking Apps. There’s so many I won’t even scratch the surface. Myfitness Pal, Calorie Counter, Cronometer, these are just a fraction of the countless tracking apps available. Then add in every wearable fitness tracker which has its own food log calorie counter and next thing you know you have 5+ apps all loaded on your phone. These are a lot easier. Most have a barcode scanner which allows you to easily search for foods you eat. Scan away, scroll through a few portion sizes, and you have yourself a colorful chart of your macros consumed.
Why I don’t like apps, they become an obsession. One easily at your fingertips. Instead of sitting down to enjoy your meal, you’re scanning, scrolling, and estimating portion sizes. Maybe you don’t like to estimate, and now you see that 2 Tbsp of PB is 190 calories, so you think “I can keep it down to only 1 Tbsp” and now you’re focusing on that number before you eat. Which, ok, that too can be helpful to relearn portion sizes…or it can make you go crazy with cutting and limiting and obsessing over the numbers. My other problem with apps is they’re designed for people who eat packaged foods. Pick up a package and scan the barcode. But what if you make homemade meals? Then you’re creating personalized recipes to track, 1 cup chickpeas, 5 stems of kale, 1 bell pepper, 2 carrots, etc. then dividing that up into how many meals?! Sorry, that’s too much work for me.
Then there’s weighing out your food. While this is precise, again it only works if you are eating simply: a protein, a starch, and a vegetable. It’s the ultimate macro tracker. Commonly used in the bodybuilding world, where strict macro ratios are being followed. It has its place, great for the meal prepper, but certainly not an everyday ongoing lifestyle. Which is why I’m not a fan.
If you haven’t noticed, I love food, good food, interesting food, flavorful food. For me, nutrition is about eating and enjoying healthy food that benefits your body and yes, your soul. I aim to focus on correct portions and healthy choices, day after day. For me I find the easiest way to track and maintain that is using either the plate or hand method.
Both of these involve eyeing up an estimated percentage/portion of protein, starchy and non-starchy carbohydrates and fat. So how do I do this? Well, I like to mainly eat vegetables, keeping my protein or meat sources to the correct amount is easy once I identify the estimated amount I should be consuming for each meal. A palm size piece of meat, or ¼ of my plate protein sources. Then ½ my plate is non-starchy veggies, I just load them up. I’ll add in a couple thumb size amounts of fat, either olive oil, avocado, butter, or nuts. Then top all that onto about two cupped handfuls or ¼ plate of whole grains. Giving me a completely balanced and easily portioned meal, and one that I can mix all together in one delicious plate. Yum!
You see, sometimes simple is the best way to go. If you’re looking for basic ways to stay on top of a “balanced” meal, then keep it simple. Visually divide up your plate making sure you’re mostly eating non-starchy veggies, a portion of quality protein, a portion of slow burning complex carbohydrates, and a touch of fat. Once you start doing that, you’ll soon realize that proper portion control doesn’t mean a giant bowl of pasta with a few diced up peppers, covered in meat sauce. Delicious as it may be, those ratios are off.
Try it out for yourself and see how you feel. Start off by aiming for 1-2 palms of protein-dense foods, 2-3 fists of non-starchy vegetables, 1-2 cupped handfuls of complex carbohydrates, and 1-2 thumbs of fat dense foods at each meal.