Understanding meal and portion sizes is an essential component of keeping your body healthy. Eating meals that are too large can aggravate a variety of conditions, like GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease).

Furthermore, with the United States establishing initiatives for healthier eating in recent years, appropriate meal size and portion control have become more of a focus. Michelle Obama launched the Let’s Move initiative in 2010, a healthy eating campaign that addresses America’s growing childhood obesity problem. Given that obesity is a major issue in the U.S., it’s easy to see why portion control and meal size are so essential to a beginner’s guide to healthy eating.

What Does Portion Control Mean?

Portion control is the practice of choosing a healthy amount of food to meet your nutritional needs. This might help you save money, cut down on binge eating, improve digestion, increase fullness, and lose weight.

Before going deeper into portions and servings, it’s best to understand the five food groups and the serving sizes you need each day. Most meal portions are based on these staples:

  • Vegetables and legumes — Five to six servings;
  • Fruits — Two servings;
  • Whole grains and fibers — Three to six servings;
  • Dairy products — Three to four servings;
  • Meats and proteins — Two to three servings.

For a complete diet, each of these categories is included in one or more meals. Moreover, eating the proper meal size is equally as important as eating the right foods. In fact, according to the National Institute of Health, in the last two decades, American restaurant food portions have more than doubled in size, contributing to high obesity rates among the population. It’s not hard to see why Americans could struggle to identify proper meal sizes and portions.

Are Portion Sizes Bigger in the U.S. Than in Other Countries?

According to a recent multi-country study by Tufts University, large, high-calorie portion sizes in fast food and full-service restaurants are not limited to the United States. In fact, international researchers discovered that 94% of full-service meals and 72% of fast food meals in a five-country study contained at least 600 calories.

What’s more, statistics on fast food consumption in the United States reveal that one in three Americans will dine at a fast-food restaurant, where portion control and meal size are heavily disregarded. Therefore, it’s essential to know the proper meal size, whether at home or abroad.

Measuring and Controlling Portion Sizes

Portion control doesn’t mean you must use a scale or look up your serving sizes at every meal. Once you grasp the guidelines of portion sizing, it becomes easier to eat more thoughtfully. Here are some dietitian-approved tips for portion control:

The MyPlate Guide

The MyPlate Guide is an interactive tool that shows you what and how much to eat within your calorie limit based on your target food groups. Your personalized food plan is based on your:

  • Age;
  • Sex;
  • Height;
  • Weight;
  • Physical activity level.

Within the program, you can explore recipes and resources for your kitchen organized by food groups to utilize what you already have, or to help build a grocery list.

Why Plate Size Matters

The size of your plate matters when it comes to mealtime. Most people eat the serving size they give themselves, usually much larger than a standard meal portion. You can control your meal size by using smaller plates and bowls to eat less food.

As a rule of thumb, your plate should consist of about 50% vegetables, legumes, or fruit, 25% meat or protein, and 25% whole grains.

How Your Hands Serve as a Guide

Another easy method for measuring portions is using your hands.

  • The palm is a meal-size portion for meats and proteins.
  • A closed fist is the size of one cup and determines your vegetable portions.
  • The size of your carbohydrate portions is determined by the palm of your cupped hand.
  • Your fat servings are determined by the size of your thumb.

By using your hands as meal-size comparisons, you can make an easy estimation of portions to determine what a healthy meal might look like.

Don’t Eat Straight From the Container

Remove a serving and put it on an appropriate-sized plate or bowl rather than grabbing extra servings from the container without measuring them first. Avoid eating directly from the container, as it becomes easy to lose track of portions.

Additionally, store your snacks and groceries in pre-portioned containers. This makes it easy to measure and control your meal size. Using compartmentalization allows you to eat a variety of your favorite snacks but in portions that won’t contribute to overindulgence.

Be Conscious of Serving Sizes

Serving sizes can be deceiving. Incorporating the use of a digital scale or measuring cups can help you stay on track.

A few examples of standard food serving sizes are:

  • Cooked rice or pasta: 1/2 cup;
  • Veggies and salads: 1 to 2 cups;
  • Cereal: 1 cup;
  • Cooked meats: 3 ounces.

Though you may not always need to measure your meals, doing so will begin to help you recognize what healthy portions look like. You may use serving sizes to help you with meal preparation. Meal prepping is a great approach to maintain a healthy lifestyle and get all of your essential nutrients.

A Food Diary Always Helps

It can be challenging to keep track of meal portions, especially when dining out. As a result, keeping a food diary is an easy way to monitor meal portion sizes and calorie intake without measuring or calculating your meal size at every meal.

Keeping a record of what you eat allows you to reflect on your eating habits and meal portions. You may discover areas where you can improve or habits working for you and your portion control goals.

Mindful Eating 101

Mindful eating — which cultivates mindful awareness of the food you eat — is an excellent approach to mealtime. While eating, you’ll want to really focus on your meal’s tastes, texture, and satiety. Listen to both your body’s hunger cues and when it’s full.

By practicing mindful eating techniques, you may find that mealtime becomes more enjoyable, and meal portions may decrease as you eat less because you’re more aware of your body’s hunger signals.

Why Is Portion Control So Important?

Meal portions that are too big or not sized appropriately may cause you to consume excess calories or miss out on essential nutrients necessary for your body’s optimal function.

The benefits of portion control are:

  • Reduced risk of weight gain — Meal portions that are too big or not sized appropriately may cause weight gain, increasing the risk of developing other severe health conditions.
  • Increased fiber intake — Meal portions that are too big or not sized appropriately may cause you to miss out on essential nutrients necessary for your body’s optimal function.
  • Healthy meal planning — Meal prepping allows you to maintain a healthy lifestyle and get all your essential nutrients.
  • Increased satiation — Meal portions that are too big or not sized appropriately may cause mealtime to become less enjoyable and lead you to eat more, which can increase the risk of weight gain.
  • Improved nutrient intake — Smaller portions can reduce the risk for obesity, heart disease, diabetes, or digestive issues such as GERD.

Portion control is a small adjustment that will lead to a healthier lifestyle in many ways. Additionally, learning about your digestive health and the causes and symptoms of GERD can help you manage mealtime discomfort and pain. However, if your symptoms and pain are beyond a reasonable amount, seek medical support and get more information about treatment that can help. Overall, portion control doesn’t mean meal-size limits or deprivation, but instead using healthier meal strategies that can bring about a healthy balance.