On Your Health

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The Basics of Portion Sizes

If you’re starting your journey to a healthier lifestyle, following basic nutritional guidelines may seem simple enough – just eat proper portions from the basic food groups, based on the number of servings recommended by sources like Dr. Andrew Weil’s anti-inflammatory food pyramid.  But what constitutes a healthy portion size? After all, the term can seem a bit vague at first, especially if you’re trying to avoid pre-measured convenience food in favor of home-prepared meals.

To help yourself quickly and easily eyeball the amount of food you’re actually eating, keep a few basic shapes in mind. Believe it or not, nutritionists often rely on non-culinary images such as tennis balls and hockey pucks for portion control references. Once you master those, you’ll soon have more than a sporting chance of perfecting portion control.


Portion Size vs. Serving Size

Somewhat confusingly, what dietitians mean by a serving is not necessarily the same as what a restaurant or food manufacturer calls a serving size. For example, if your health provider tells you to consume three servings of protein each day, the proper portion size for each of those servings is not necessarily equivalent to what a restaurant or a frozen food manufacturer might list as one serving of meat or cheese. It is important to be aware of what a real serving size should be and avoid the pitfalls of pre-measured foods or restaurant portions, which are often far greater than a recommended serving size.


Feel free to play with a full deck when it comes to red meat and poultry – eat a serving that’s the approximate size of a deck of cards. For fish, you can increase your serving size to the size of a checkbook. Hard cheese is best kept to no more than 2 ounces, or 1/3 of a deck of cards. Enjoying your favorite nuts? Keep it to a small handful. For beans, imagine the size of a regular light bulb when dishing out your portion.


Don’t roll the dice on the health risks of too much fat in your diet. When you’re trying to maintain a goal of two or three fat servings per day, keep in mind that a healthy portion of peanut butter is about 1.5 teaspoons – or two dice. The recommended butter or mayonnaise portion is about the size of one die. Of course, liquids like olive oil and salad dressing can’t be eyeballed into solid shapes, so remember that 1 tablespoon of these fats counts as one portion.


Fruits and vegetables, since they are much lower in calories and fats than most other foods, can be eaten in greater quantities. Too much of anything, however, can lead to trouble, so it’s good to follow portion size and serving amount guidelines. For salad and other raw greens, aim for portions that equal about two baseballs. With cooked vegetables like broccoli, each portion should be the size of about one baseball. Tennis balls are the visual aid of choice for fruit. Each serving of a small piece of whole fruit, or a serving of berries or chopped fruit, should equal the size of one tennis ball.


Think of hockey pucks when it comes to visualizing proper carbohydrate portions. A small bagel, which equals one portion size, is about the size of a hockey puck – as is one slice of bread, 1/2 cup of cooked grains or pasta, and half a baked potato. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have a traditional sandwich or a whole potato with a meal – just be aware that you’re eating two of your daily carb portions when you do so.

With practice, you’ll remember that a dinner with a hockey puck each of rice and a whole-wheat roll; a deck of fish fillet; a two-baseball bowl of salad topped with a die of olive oil; and for dessert a tennis ball of fresh berries, equals two carb servings, one protein serving, a fat serving and two produce servings.