One of the common email topics I’ve noticed in the reader emails I get is portion control, and rather than continuing to respond individually (which I’m still very happy to do), I thought it might be beneficial to write a post about it.

Hi Angela,

I follow a clean diet and work out about 5x a week. My workouts consist of cardio, weights, and a bit of yoga, but even with a clean diet and regular fitness routine, I still struggle with a couple extra pounds. Recently I’ve wondered if it’s my portion sizes. I’ve always justified the fact that I’m active with how much I eat, but I was wondering if you could give me an idea how you figure out the correct amount to eat? I know every one has different calorie needs depending on age and height etc, but are there any basic rules of thumb or tips you have? Thanks!

Firstly, I think that portion control is something that a ton of people struggle with, and it’s totally understandable why. Have you taken a look at a restaurant-sized entree lately? Or walked into Costco? I’ve read marketing studies that show people will consume more of a product than they normally would, simply because it’s in a larger bottle. Translate that into food items, be it chips and cookies or even healthier choices like lean protein and nuts, and it means extra calories eaten. In addition to bigger bags, boxes, and plates, there are a ton of distractions that can lead us to eat more than a single portion – TV, music, reading, checking emails, driving – no wonder weight is a problem for so many people!

*** Note: The information I am about to give is based entirely on my own experiences, and it refers specifically to my own weight loss. It might not be what you’d hear from a dietitian or weight loss consultant, so don’t take it as gospel and please always remember to check with your doctor if you have individual health concerns. ***

Specifically looking at the time when I was trying to lose my ‘last few pounds’, my success came from sticking to a clean eating plan and increasing the amount of exercise that I did each week. The exercise part came pretty easy because I prefer to get my workouts done first thing in the morning. I didn’t have to worry about not having time to squeeze it in because, let’s face it, if you’re not sleeping at 6am, what other excuse do you have?

You might be thinking, “Ok, working out and eating clean. That’s a whole lot easier said than done!” I agree, and these habits didn’t develop overnight. By this time in my weight loss days, I’d already spent just under a year learning how to incorporate the right kinds of foods into my diet and reduce amounts of the ones that got me to the unhappy stage I was at.

I’ve talked a bit before about how I went about returning to my healthy weight, but in a nutshell, it was through a calorie counting-based program, similar to Weight Watchers, and the bulk of it happened within 1 year. On this program, nothing was off limits. I was assigned a daily calorie target goal and tracked my eating to ensure that I met it each day.

As for what I was eating and how much, this is where things start to sound a little odd. I ate TONS. And I mean, I could eat more volume-wise than my dad, who is 6’3″ tall. The thing was though, that I was eating tons of the foods that I’d been seriously neglecting in the years prior. Rather than neglecting a particular macronutrient (like you’d expect in a low-carb or low-fat diet), I filled up on a lot of low calorie, high volume foods. My meals consisted largely (as in, around 70%) of vegetables. I’d always be sure to have lean protein too, and would incorporate healthy grains but generally stayed away from them at dinner because I knew my body didn’t need that energy to go to bed. I was never left hungry after a meal, and let myself eat unlimited fruits and vegetables which kept me full all the time.

Before I talk about what I’d classify as ‘a portion’, let’s have a quick look at Canada’s Food Guide. This is the recommended number of servings we are told we should get daily of each food group:

And this is what constitutes a serving size according to Health Canada:

So how does that compare to what I eat? You might be wondering if the servings you see on the blog are the same size as the ones I actually consume, and don’t be fooled by small bowls – they’re usually just for aesthetic purposes! When it comes to non-starchy veggies, I still follow a however-many-I-want rule. Since fruit contains a lot of simple sugar, I don’t consume it in unlimited quantities but still enjoy it regularly and opt for fruit over sugary refined alternatives. But what about other food groups like protein (or milk and alternatives), whole grains, and healthy fats? My definition of what constitutes a serving hasn’t changed much since the time I was trying to lose weight. The difference now is that I eat more servings in order to maintain my weight.

Protein

Everyone has different preferences for meat, fish etc, but this is generally what I go by when it comes to the different types I eat. Keep in mind that my diet is a little more protein-heavy than what is recommended by the Food Guide because of my athletic goals.

  • Lean chicken breast or white fish (tilapia, cod etc) – about 130g
  • Fatty fish like salmon – about 120g
  • Shrimp (the cooked frozen kind) – about 15-20
  • Edamame – 1/2 cup shelled
  • Tofu – about 150g
  • Egg whites (like in an omelette) – about 1/2 cup. Alternatively, 1 egg + 2 whites, or 2 eggs – slightly higher in calories but you’re getting the valuable vitamins and minerals in the yolk.
  • Protein powder – 1 scoop
  • Greek yogurt – 3/4 cup
  • Chickpeas – 1/2 cup

Eating with these portion sizes guarantees between 15 and 30g of protein, which I’ve found is key for me in order to feel properly recovered after strength workouts.

Whole Grains:

As mentioned earlier, I personally don’t eat many whole grains in the evening because I know my body doesn’t need that energy while I’m sleeping at night. Therefore when have them, it’s during breakfast and lunch. A few examples:

  • 1 cup cereal – eaten with fruit and yogurt
  • 1 slice whole wheat toast – eaten with an omelette stuffed with veggies and salsa.
  • Plain oatmeal – 1/3 to 1/2 cup mixed with water or almond milk, and made more exciting with cinnamon and fruit
  • Brown or wild rice, spelt or kamut berries, quinoa, wheatberries, barley, etc – about 1/3 – 1/2 cup cooked, which is typically around 1/4 cup uncooked.

Healthy Fats

You probably don’t need me to tell you to stay away from anything containing saturated or trans fats. It’s the healthy fats we want, and I usually opt for the following:

  • Natural nut butters (about 2 tbsp on toast or spread on fruit)
  • Nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pecans, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds)
  • Salmon! Canned or fresh – both are delicious and give you a hearty dose of omega-3s.
  • Avocados – A few slices, or about 1/4 of a medium sized one.

I know this is getting to be a long post, but there are 2 final things I have to say. The first is that just because the above portion sizes work for me, it doesn’t mean that they’re “the right ones”, or that they’ll lead to weight loss for everyone. There isn’t a perfect formula that works for everyone.

Secondly and lastly, your body is smart. It knows how to protect itself and sends signals when it’s hungry and full. If we ignore distractions that affect our ability to recognize the signals, I don’t think we’d need to worry about how many grams technically defines a portion. We’d be eating intuitively and not excessively, something that everyone (myself included) could stand to benefit from.

Now it’s over to you…

  • How have your eating habits changed over the years?
  • Do you tend to use defined portion sizes as your guide, or do you rely on your body’s internal cues?