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Weight Management: Controlling Portion Sizes Without Counting Calories

Weight management can be challenging. Weight loss can be even more challenging. Some of the biggest factors that can influence weight are hunger levels and eating more calories than our bodies need. It can be difficult to keep track of what we eat in a day and food logging apps for weight management are often burdensome and not a sustainable way to keep eating behaviors in check. It is just as inconvenient to weigh or measure everything you eat in a day. In fact, research shows that simply telling people to “eat less or eat smaller portions” isn’t an effective way to help them manage their weight.¹ So what are some ways to keep your servings and calorie intake in line with your health goals?

Down-size your dinnerware

The type of dinnerware and utensils we use can have a major influence on how we eat and manage our weight. Swapping out full size dinner plates and utensils with salad plates and forks or even smaller spoons may help an individual eat fewer calories. This is also true for replacing large cereal bowls with smaller bowls or even a coffee mug and drinking fluids from tall skinny glasses vs. short wide glasses. Eating off of plates that have a color which contrasts with the color of the foods normally eaten (such as using blue plates) can also limit portion sizes. Other ways to be more mindful of how much food is being consumed at a meal is to forgo family-style dinners, meals in which all foods are placed on the table, with meals that are plated in the kitchen and brought to the table. Perhaps saving space at the table for a plate of sliced vegetables, a salad, or a bowl of fruit. 

Visualize your servings

While it may not be feasible to measure or weigh your food for each meal there are some pretty simple hacks that can make estimating correct portion sizes for weight management easy to do. One tried-and-true method is using your hands as a basic guide. 

  • Lean proteins — Your palm laid flat is approximately 3 to 4 ounces, or the serving size recommended for lean proteins. 
  • Starchy vegetables, fruit, or complex carbohydrates — Your clenched fist is about 1 cup or the serving size recommended for complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, beans, starchy vegetables such as peas and potatoes, or fruit. 
  • Non-starchy vegetables — Both of your hands cupped for leafy vegetables or your closed fist for other non-starchy vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, or artichokes equals an average serving size of these vegetables. 
  • Nuts and seeds — Your cupped hand is about 1 ounce, or 1 serving of whole nuts and seeds. 
  • Nut butters, cheese, dressings, or avocados — Your thumb is the size of approximately 1 ounce, or the recommended serving size of healthy fats. 
  • Oils and butters — Your fingertip on your index finger is approximately 1 teaspoon, or an average serving size of fats. 

You can also use your dinner plate as a healthy eating guide making sure that at least 50% of your plate is covered with vegetables, including raw, cooked, or leafy greens. Approximately 25% of your plate should include lean protein such as fish, poultry, or beans. The other 25% should be dedicated to complex carbohydrates such as rice, legumes, or other whole grains. Including a small amount of healthy fat such as olive oil is a great way to boost the flavor of meals, and help with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Of course, depending on your specific nutrition needs you may need to customize your plate a bit further. One tool that can help you accomplish this is which can give you expert guidance on what foods to fuel up on and how your needs may change depending on your physical activity and age

Additional strategies to keep portions under control

While visualizing serving or portion sizes can be great ways to keep eating habits in check and manage your weight, there are other ways to help stop the unhelpful patterns such as overeating, including:

  • Limit Temptation — If you know that a certain food is just too tempting when your emotions get the best you, keep it out of your home. If this is just not possible, at least keep this food out of sight and preferably on a high shelf in the pantry or in the back of the refrigerator -some place where it takes more work than usual to get to. 
  • Find support — If family or friends are not available or not enough, consider reaching out to a community that is focused on supporting individuals with emotional eating issues. This could be a local support group or a larger virtual support group. 
  • Ask the restaurant for to-go containers when you order — The size of most meals when we eat out is larger than average and often energy dense.² Asking for to-go containers right away allows you to cut down on the food on your plate and likely the amount of food you consume. 
  • Distract yourself — When you have the urge to snack, take at least 5 or 10 minutes to find something, anything else to do. Simply by distracting yourself you may find that the craving has passed.
  • Stop being overly restrictive — Whether it is because you are trying to lose weight or another reason, if you are getting too few calories throughout the day, your food cravings may increase, especially in response to emotions. Aim to eat satisfying amounts of healthy foods throughout the day, even enjoying an occasional treat, which can help prevent cravings in the first place.
  • Focus on plants — Research shows that individuals who focus on lower energy-dense foods, such as fruits and vegetables, are more likely to lose weight or be able to maintain a healthy weight. Even without being too controlling with portions. Fill up on produce for snacks and at the start of each meal to make sure you are filling up on nutrient-dense foods that are low in calories and naturally filling. 
  • Plan ahead — Prepare meals and snacks ahead of time and keep them in an easy to reach location in clear containers. 
  • Stick to a schedule — Try to eat meals and snacks around the same time every day. Your body will start to adjust when it signals to the body that it is time to eat, which can help you plan and make better food choices. Bonus — eating every 3 or 4 hours can help to keep your body fueled and prevent dips in blood sugar, which could lead to overeating. 

If you enjoyed this article you'll love learning how to avoid holiday weight gain and food pitfalls.

1. Rolls BJ. What is the role of portion control in weight management?. Int J Obes (Lond). 2014;38 Suppl 1(Suppl 1):S1-S8. doi:10.1038/ijo.2014.82
2. Livingstone, M Barbara E, and L Kirsty Pourshahidi. “Portion size and obesity.” Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.) vol. 5,6 829-34. 14 Nov. 2014, doi:10.3945/an.114.007104


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