Understanding Portion Control

When talking about calorie rich foods we often hear ‘it’s fine, just watch your portion’ – but how do we do this? 

understanding portion control

When it comes to most foods, size, or portion does matter. When it comes to weight loss, being in a calorie deficit is important. Even though we might be eating plenty of healthy foods, if we’re too generous with our portion sizes we might not be achieving that calorie deficit needed to see results. 

The difference in calories of 1 extra teaspoon of oil can mean an additional 40 calories.

It’s a balancing act though! Foods we need to be mindful of portion size are foods high in calories, sugar and saturated fats, a.k.a. ‘sometimes’ foods.

One type of food we don’t need to worry about portion size however is non-starchy veggies. These are foods like leafy greens, cucumber, capsicum, cabbage, broccoli. They’re nutrient dense and full of fibre, and provide little calories per serve. 

Knowing the difference between portion size vs serving size 

The portion of a food you eat might not be the serving size of a food item. A food’s serving size can be determined by either the NZ Ministry of Health healthy eating guidelines, or it can be decided by the food manufacturer. For example, the guidelines might suggest ½ cup of muesli is a serving size (~60g), whereas a muesli brand might put the serving size as 40g of their muesli. Both of these however, might differ to the amount you fill your bowl up with every morning (a.k.a. your portion size). 

Portion sizes should be based on level of activity and daily calorie needs (if you’re quite active your portion may need to be larger) as well as what else is being had in the meal e.g. muesli served with yoghurt, fruit and milk. It’s also important to consider how long this meal needs to sustain you, or what type of meal it is (is it just a snack?).  

Bear in mind, the NZ healthy eating guidelines provide food requirements for an ‘adult’, but don’t take into account your personal daily calorie requirements or activity level, so are simply a guideline for an average adult to follow. We can use these as a baseline guide if we’re ever unsure on a portion size. 

Know which foods can quickly tip the balance 

Although there are foods that are full to the brim with nutritional goodness, some of these can also pack a fair amount of calories. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t eat these foods (we absolutely should!), it’s just that we only need a smaller portion when we do. 

Suggested portion sizes for higher calorie foods:

  • Salmon → 125g uncooked (100g cooked), or 50g smoked 
  • Nuts & seeds → 1-2 Tbsp
  • Avocado → ⅛ to ¼ 
  • Olive oil (and other oils) → 2-3 tsp for a meal for 3-4 people, 1-2 tsp for meal for 2-3 people, ½-1 tsp for a single serve meal 
  • Nut butters (e.g. peanut butter) → 1-2 Tbsp 
  • Butter → 1 tsp 
  • Mayonnaise or aioli → 1 Tbsp 
  • Brown rice → ¼ cup uncooked / ½ cup cooked per person 
  • Kumara → 100-150g per person 
  • Cheese → haloumi ~50-80g per person, feta ~ 1-2 Tbsp per person, Parmesan ~ 1 Tbsp per person 
  • Hummus → 2 Tbsp 
  • Edamame → ½-¾ cup shelled edamame per person

Use visual cues to help balance your plate 

We can use the healthy plate model as a visual guide on how to plan and plate our meal. 

The healthy plate models aims for ½ the plate non-starchy veggies (leafy greens, broccoli, capsicum or fruit), ¼ protein (good quality meat or seafood, eggs, tofu, legumes, dairy), ¼ complex carbs (whole grains or starchy veg). We then top up with a little bonus healthy fats (think olive oil or a sprinkle of nuts or seeds over top).  

Use smaller plates or bowls 

We have a tendency to fill up our plate, regardless of its size. Parallel to this, it’s been drilled into us that we need to finish everything on our plate from an early age. When we combine serving ourselves a large plate and forcing ourselves to finish it, we often end up eating far more than we needed or even wanted to. Using a smaller plate can help us serve less initially, and let us assess how full we really are once we’ve finished the smaller portion. 

When buying foods in bigger packets or from bulk bins for snacking, make sure to portion these up for each snack, to save from mindlessly overeating.

We have a tendency to fill up our plate, regardless of its size. Parallel to this, it’s been drilled into us that we need to finish everything on our plate from an early age.

Using hand size for approximate portions 

Using the below hand sizes as a guide for portion sizes of different food groups can be helpful to determine an approximate portion size, and save us from needing to carry around measuring spoons. 

A super-sized environment 

Coming back to serving size vs portion size, it’s important to note that packaged and purchased (at a restaurant or cafe) foods aren’t necessarily ‘perfectly portioned’. Where a food manufacturer might say a single serve packet of chips is 40g, our appropriate portion size might actually be less than this (40g is approximately 1/3 of a family size bag of chips). 

In the Western world it’s no secret that food has become super-sized in the last century. Not just has the size of soft drinks, burgers or fries increased, but simple things like cafe baking has too. Where a piece of slice was once the size of a matchbox, they’re now rivalling a deck of cards, most of them even double this in height. If you’re enjoying a cafe bought goody, sharing this with a friend, or enjoying half and saving half can be a great way to control portion size. If a restaurant meal ends up too large, most places are happy to pop it in a takeaway box for you. 

Information from:

Heart Foundation NZ

NZ Ministry of Health, Healthy Eating Guidelines

Meet the Nutritionist

Emma ‘Edamame’

Our in-house nutritionist Emma ‘Edamame’ was born and bred in mid Canterbury and has the health and wellbeing of Kiwis in mind at all times. As an NZ registered nutritionist (NZ Nutrition Society) with a bachelor’s degree in Nutrition and Food Science from the University of Auckland, she makes sure we’re all getting our fresh dose of local veggies and our meals are full of nutritious substance – thanks for having our back Em (and our waistlines!). When it comes to New Zealand produce, Emma is a whizz, with fresh berries being her absolute fave. Intrigued to know what food this nutritionist couldn’t live without? Fresh fish and seafood, delivering on both flavour and nourishment. As well as ice cream, especially real fruit ice creams, in the summer time! Life’s all about a tasty balance, right?

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