According to a study published in the International Journal of Obesity in 2014, 92% of people eat everything that’s on their plate. Pretty alarming, considering the size of American restaurant meals (which my Parisienne friends refer to as “vulgar”), snacks, and drinks can be double the portion size you actually need.
While more food makes you feel like you’re getting more value out of what you’re buying, if you’re eating more food than your body needs you’re getting the worse end of the deal. And the larger portions also train your brain to believe you can’t be satisfied without more food.
So how do you know what portion size you should be eating?
The Issue with "one-size-fits-all" food
You might look to some of the food standards we have today, like serving sizes. But these are created from a national average of what people tend to eat in one sitting. Their purpose is more to tell you how many calories you’ll probably be consuming rather than how much you’re supposed to eat. And with people thinking they need more to be satisfied, that’s probably not the standard you want to follow.
The other caveat is that these standards don’t take into consideration that your needs are unique. Height, age, hormone fluctuations, weight, activity level, health conditions, what you ate for breakfast, and more affect how much you should eat at your next meal. What’s considered “typical” doesn’t take any of that into consideration.
In addition to the overall size of the meal, it’s also important to balance the types of food on your plate. A meal that’s 90% carbs, for instance, will not only cause you to eat more in the short term, but will also have you hungry again in 1-2 hours because your body will process it so quickly.
You want to balance out carbs with plenty of protein, fiber, and healthy fat, all of which will help fill you up more quickly and keep you satiated for up to 4-6 hours after a meal.
Become your own "expert"
We, humans, are the only species that asks others how much food to eat, and it’s completely unnecessary! Our bodies already know the answer.
The best way to find the right portion sizes for you is to listen to your body because this wisdom will not only steer you toward better health, it’s also flexible and changes as your needs change.
It’s not as overwhelming as it sounds. In fact, the system to figure this out is pretty simple and doesn’t even require a food scale.
1. Start with these approximate serving sizes
First, you need a place to start so you can get moving. Don’t worry about being too exact because you’ll get more accurate in the next step. I’ve included some measurements and approximate sizes so you get a sense of how much you’re eating.
Protein is crucial for practically every cellular process in your body, helps build muscle, hair, cartilage, and nails, and is a powerful energy source for your body, among many other functions.
- Approximate size: one palm
- Measurement: 3 - 6 oz depending on your size
Vegetables are your biggest sources of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients.
- Approximate size: 1 heaping handful
- Measurement: ½ - 1 cup
Note: If you’re going to up the amount you’re eating in any category, this is the best place to start.
Healthy fats are important for absorbing certain nutrients into your body (like vitamin A, D, E and K) and balancing your hormones. They’re also crucial if you decide to go low-carb to ensure you’re getting enough calories throughout the day.
- Approximate size: 1 - 2 thumbs of oil or pastured ghee, a handful of olives or a fistful of nuts
- Measurement: 1 - 2 tablespoons of oil or pastured ghee, ½ - 1 cup of olives, ¼ - ½ cup of nuts
Grains are optional, but they become more necessary the more active you get because they’re quick sources of energy. If you eat them, it’s important to keep the amount minimal so you don’t spike your blood sugar.
- Approximate size: 1 handful
- Measurement: ½ - 1 cup
Note: If you’re eating grains and you’re getting full too quickly, you can cut back on healthy fats. But don’t cut them out completely because they’re still necessary!
Fruit is also optional and can be a great nutritious dessert option, supplying some additional vitamins, minerals, and fiber, especially if you emphasize raspberries and blackberries (which I eat every day!).
- Approximate size: 1 handful or piece
- Measurement: ½ - 1 cup
If you’re active or you think you’ll need more food in one sitting, feel free to increase each of these starting points. The next step will make sure you end up in the right place.
2. Listen to cues from your body
The guidelines above don’t take into account anything other than height and build, which means they’ll almost definitely need tweaking.
So you should ask yourself this question after each bite: Am I satisfied yet?
It can take 10 to 45 minutes for your body to actually register you’re full. Slowing down with this question will help give your body enough time to send signals that you’re satisfied. And it’ll make you more aware of what being done actually feels like for the times you can’t control what’s on your plate.
Once you’re satisfied, take note of how much food you have left over, wrap it up for another meal, and adjust accordingly next time. Or if you’ve cleared your plate and you’re still not satisfied, make yourself some more food and increase your portion sizes next time.
If you’re used to eating meals quickly, you’ll want to stop at the point where you’re about 80% full and ask yourself this question again in 10-15 minutes to give your body some time to catch up and make sure you’re actually full.
The last cue to pay attention to is how long you go before you get hungry again. Your goal is to stay satiated at least 4 hours between meals, so if you’re getting hungry after 1-2 hours then you’ll want to check the balance of your meals to make sure you’re getting enough protein, fiber, and fat.
3. Adjust as needed
Now that you know what worked last time, adjust accordingly with less or more food if needed. You’ll probably need to do this exercise a few times before you get the right balance.
You might also find you’ll eat different amounts with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and that life circumstances will also dictate portion size. That’s normal. Just go back to step 2 and repeat whenever you find you’re starting to get a little too full or hungry after a meal.
And remember that this mindfulness and continuous reflection is something that should be ongoing. Because your body and its needs are constantly changing.
Once you have a good handle on how much you actually need to eat, you can apply those rules anywhere you go. But if you don’t have time to create balanced meals on a regular basis or you’d just like some help getting started, we’ve got your back.
At Methodology, we offer low- or moderate-carb meals in Small, Medium, and Large sizes (plus Family for anyone trying to feed two people for less money) so you can adjust according to what your body’s telling you. We make it easy to toggle between settings at any time as well in case your needs change.
If you’d like to try our meals, sign up for our waitlist. Or you can learn more about what we do.