Calculating the Correct Portion Sizes for Weight Loss

Understanding Serving Size vs. Portion Size

Scooping a portion onto a dinner plate
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Controlling your portion size is one of the key ingredients to any successful weight-loss program. The simple truth is that many a good weight loss attempt has been undermined by our tendency to add "just a teensy bit more" if something looks good, believing that it either doesn't matter or that we can somehow make up the difference elsewhere.

Irrespective of the type of diet you are on, identifying the correct portion size allows you to know exactly how many calories, carbs, sodium, or fats you are consuming. It is the cornerstone to building good eating habits, increasing your chances of not only losing weight but keeping it off.

Portion Size vs. Serving Size

Many of the problems related to portion size stem from misconceptions about what the term actually means. For example, if you use the Nutrition Facts label on a food product to direct your portion size, you may already be setting yourself up for failure.

What you are referring to on the label is the serving size, a standard set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to describe "the amount of food customarily consumed in one sitting for that food." It is simply used as a reference point to describe the amount of food in relation to the nutritional information shown.

Portion size is different. This is the amount of a specific food that you would eat to reduce your current consumption of calories, carbs, fats, etc. While the FDA serving size is a generalized value, portion size is an individualized value based on your current weight, current consumption, and weight loss goals.

Let's say, for example, that you regularly snack on low-calorie microwave popcorn. A serving size according to the Nutrition Facts label is four cups. There are two servings in each full-size bag. If you eat the whole bag, your portion size is eight cups, double the serving size and double the nutrition values.

Similarly, the recommended serving size of grapes is one cup or roughly 16 grapes. Unless you count out the grapes, this "low-calorie" food can increase your carb intake well beyond your intended daily limit.

Ultimately, it is these little "cheats" that can undermine a diet as much as the big ones. If you confuse serving size with portion size, your calorie counts will likely be way off.

This is true even with respect to certain diet apps that base their calculations on FDA serving sizes. Unless you have the reference values and make the appropriate adjustments—inputting eight grapes as a half (0.5) portion or 20 grapes as a 1.25 portion—the app will be of little benefit to your weight loss strategy.

Calculating Portion Sizes

The ultimate aim of any weight loss plan is to consume fewer calories than your body utilizes to remain at your current weight. Clearly, you need to do so without depriving yourself of important nutrients, including healthy fats and carbohydrates.

Unlike serving size, the portion size is calculated based on how many calories you plan to consume in a day. You would then plan your menus by calculating how much of a certain food you can eat to remain within that limit.

As such, portion sizes can vary as long as nutritional needs are met. These goals are outlined in the 2015 to 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans issued by the Department of Health and Human Services.

To determine your correct portion sizes, use a weight loss calculator to determine how many calories you need to consume daily to lose weight. The calculation is based on your age, sex, height, current weight, activity level, weight loss goal, and intended weight loss date.

Your goal would then be to strategically design menus around those dietary constraints, selecting not only the foods you can eat but how much you can eat. Those are your portion sizes. Oftentimes, it helps to work with a licensed nutritionist when first starting to ensure that the diet plan is not only safe but meets your daily nutritional goals.

4 Portion Control Tips

Once you know how much to eat, you need to take extra steps to ensures the portions sizes are accurate. Among some of the tips that can help:

  • Use portion control dishes. To aid in your weight loss goal, invest in a set of portion-control plates, serving spoons, and beverage glasses. They can easily be found online or at larger retail department stores. 
  • Measure food on a scale. Throughout your diet (but especially at the beginning), it is helpful to use a digital scale to weigh your food accurately. Other methods are available if a scale is not handy.
  • Use smaller plates and bowls. Smart dieters never eat out of the box or bag. As it is nearly impossible to maintain portion sizes if you're not paying attention, always portion out food onto a plate or bowl. Smaller dishes make your food look more substantial.
  • Counts your condiments. Don't make the mistake of thinking that ketchup or a little extra hummus doesn't matter. Measure these out as you would anything else. A heaping tablespoon of peanut butter, for example, may end up being two tablespoons, doubling your intake from 95 calories to 190 calories.

There is no question that diets require insight, preparation, and discipline. By establishing good habits from the start, you are more likely to reach your weight loss goal without unneeded stress or anxiety. Consistency is your friend.

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