Perfect portion sizes
Even healthy eaters can have too much of a good thing. Dietitian Victoria Taylor explains why monitoring your portions is key to maintaining a healthy weight.
Eating the right amount of food goes hand in hand with having a balanced diet. Often, if you’re struggling to lose weight or shift those last few pounds, your portion sizes could be the reason why. So, how much should we be eating?
We all need a certain amount of calories. They provide our bodies with energy to keep them ticking over – for growth, repair and involuntary muscle movements (like when your heart beats) – and for any activities we do.
The guideline daily amount of calories is 2,000Kcal for women and 2,500Kcal for men, based on the estimated average energy requirements from UK government guidelines on nutrition. However, these are just guidelines and it’s important to recognise that, in reality, there’s no such thing as an energy requirement that will suit everyone.
Your weight is one of the best guides to whether you’re eating the right number of calories or not
How many calories you need varies depending on your weight, gender and how active you are, as well as on your state of health. It’s also important to recognise that your energy requirements will change; many people find they gain weight when they retire, for example, and this can be because of a change in activity levels compared with when they were working.
Your weight is one of the best guides to whether you’re eating the right number of calories or not. Making changes to balance your diet, such as eating more fruit instead of chocolates, crisps and biscuits, will reduce the amount of calories you consume but you also need to consider the total amount you’re eating.
All food contains calories, even the healthy stuff. However, before you reduce your portion size, check that you’re sticking to your plans as strictly as you think you are. Your initial enthusiasm for healthy eating may have waned, resulting in a subtle but sustained increase in how much you consume. So, it’s a good idea to keep a food diary for a couple of days to check you’re still on track.
We often hear the phrase ‘everything in moderation’, but that’s not strictly true; we need more of some things and much less of others. The eatwell plate shows us how to get a balance of food groups to make sure we get all the nutrients we need. When adjusting your portion size, remember that the overall balance of food groups should stay the same.
The main group that we seem to struggle to get enough of is fruit and vegetables. To get your 5-a-day, you need to eat five 80g portions. Fruit and vegetables that are fresh, frozen, tinned and dried all count, as do juice and smoothies, and beans and pulses like kidney beans and baked beans. But remember that beans and juice will only count once a day however many portions of them you eat.
You only need to drink 150ml of juice to get your one portion; there’s no need to drink gallons. While potatoes are a vegetable in gardening terms, in relation to nutrition, they go in the starchy foods category and so we don’t count them as part of our 5-a-day.
Cooking for yourself and others
"All food contains calories, even the healthy stuff"
For those who live alone, portion sizes can be an issue. Many packs are designed to serve two or more people. Being disciplined about how many portions a meal serves can be a struggle, as when you cook more than you need, it can be tempting to go back for seconds.
To help you stick to a single portion, think about how many people a dish is going to serve before you eat it, then dish out any extra portions as other single servings when you serve yourself. Package them up in small containers and bags that you can use in the fridge or freezer. Then you can let the portions cool while you eat your meal and store these extra meals away quickly and easily, ready for another time.
Things such as rice and pasta are especially difficult to judge because the amount looks so different in its uncooked state. If you’re just cooking for yourself, it might be beneficial to measure out your dry weight before you get started; there’s only one of you and you’ll be eating it all.
However, if you’re cooking for a group of people, we suggest you do your measuring after you’ve cooked your rice or pasta. Whether you weigh it or have a measuring bowl or cup is up to you, but think about the different amounts that people need.
Men and women, for example, have differing energy requirements, but a man who is fairly sedentary won’t necessarily need a huge amount more to eat than a woman. For the same reason, a man or a woman who is in a very active job, or who does a lot of exercise, will need a bigger portion than someone less active.
Value for money is often key when it comes to dining out as it’s more expensive than eating at home. A tiny portion is something many people dread, but these days we’re regularly faced with restaurants serving absolutely massive portions, which are bad for your health.
Avoid refillable fizzy drinks, supersized meals and take care at all-you-can-eat buffets, which can encourage you to overeat.
"Avoid refillable fizzy drinks, supersized meals and take care at all-you-can-eat buffets"
Watch out for meal deals, too. If you go into a shop for a healthy sandwich but come out with that plus a sugary drink and a packet of crisps to go with it, you could add 350Kcals to your meal, doubling the amount of calories that you consume.
For buffet deals in restaurants or if you are at a party with a buffet table, the best thing to do is to fill your plate once and then move away from the food. By keeping your distance, you’ll be able to avoid being tempted to go back for more.
Achieving your goal
Getting your portions right can be the final push you need to get those last few pounds off. Eating less might seem like a bit of a sacrifice, especially when you’ve made changes to get the balance right in your diet and other people seem to be able to load their plates with food. But it’s important to remember that the amount that’s right for someone else won’t necessarily be the same for you.
Using some simple tools and tips will help you to adapt to serve the right amount for you and, in doing so, achieve the ultimate portion perfection.
The Eatwell guide shows us the proportions of the different food groups that we should eat to have a well-balanced and healthy diet.
Each of the groups is important as they provide us with different nutrients. To get the balance right, you should have plenty of fruit and vegetables and starchy carbohydrates, along with some lean meat, fish, eggs or vegetarian alternatives and low-fat dairy products. Avoid eating too many foods that are high in fat and sugar.
The eatwell guide is a suitable guide for most people. Even if you are trying to lose weight and cutting down on what you are eating, you should still aim for this balance of foods in your diet to make sure that you are getting all the nutrients you need.
Children under two have different requirements, but children between the ages of two and five should be working towards eating in this way.
Visit the Eatwell guide to check your proportions.