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Taking Control of Your Portion Sizes

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portion control

By Christine Ardigo MSRD

Take Control
Is this your idea of portion control: a sleeve of Oreos, a pint of ice cream, eating chips out of the bag until you’re full, placing enough food on your plate so the flowery print underneath no longer shows?

Does the idea of measuring your food in cups, counting grapes and weighing your meat when you made it through an exhausting day seem ridiculous? I don’t blame you. Especially when you’re dining out. What are you going to do, ask the waiter serving your glass of champagne at the wedding to bring a scale for your chicken masala? Ask the attendant at the buffet table for a measuring cup? Would you even know what a correct portion was if these accommodating individuals brought you these items?

And what about food labels? Does the gibberish on the side of that Lean Cuisine leave you wanting to run for more Oreos to calm your nerves? Does the order in which they list the ingredients indicate anything? What does “% daily value” even mean?

As registered dietitians, we tell people to watch their portions and read labels but how many of you know how? And what do you do when dining out?                                          .

The Number One Problem We Have
Today we will focus on this because the number one problem we have is our food portions. The weight does not come off despite the low fat, low carb, pre-packaged diet foods we eat. Calories still matter. I had a friend tell me he ditched all the junk food in his diet and replaced it with fruit, but still did not lose any weight. Fruit still has calories!

I’m about to tell you the easiest way to read a food label. Ready? Don’t buy anything with a food label. That simple. Anything with a food label on it has been processed in some way. Fruits, vegetables, meat: no food label. Stick with these three foods and you’ve won half the battle.

Fruits & Vegetables
When you do buy fruit, buy the smallest piece. Years ago, apples were smaller than an orange, now, some are almost the size of a grapefruit. A small piece of fruit is only sixty calories. All other fruits (melons, grapes, and berries) one cup equals a serving. Measure once, and remember what it looks like for the future. Fruit juice has no fiber and a measly ½ cup or four ounce container provides the same sixty calories. What a waste! Don’t drink your calories. Enjoy a delicious, moist piece of fruit and slowly enjoy all the sweetness and important fiber you’re taking in.
A serving of raw vegetable is only twenty-five calories. 25! So I say don’t measure your vegetables, eat as many as you want. Ten vegetables are only 250 calories, you can’t go wrong with that one. Eat them raw and relish in their unique flavors. A serving, again, is one cup. If it’s a green leafy vegetable, you can have two cups but I could never figure out how to shove a bunch of raw spinach into a measuring cup. Then again, it’s a vegetable, pile it on.

Meat & Dairy Products
A serving of meat, is the size of your palm. I usually tell my clients, if they’re hungry to eat a little more meat and less starch. Meat (protein) takes longer to digest and therefore keeps you feeling full. This doesn’t mean go to Outback and order the 22ounce Porterhouse. The size of your palm is equivalent to 4-5ounces. Each ounce you increase above that still adds on extra calories. (Again, go with the vegetables). An ounce of low fat meat such as turkey, chicken, fish and lean beef contain about fifty calories per one ounce. Leaner cuts of meat can have less calories, fattier cuts a little more. High fat meat such as hot dogs and sausage have double the calories per ounce. One slice of bacon has fifty calories! So if you had a five ounce piece of chicken = 250calories. But only one medium size sausage link = 230 calories. You decide. I’d rather have more food with less calories.

Dairy products do come in containers but that’s because we’d be scooping our milk and yogurt from a huge vat. Dairy products are easy. Eight ounces (1 cup) is a serving. Again, higher fat varieties will have more calories than their skinny counterparts. If you want to enjoy rich creamy whole fat dairy products, just watch your portions and make sure you’re not having them with other fatty foods like a six-pack of Krispy Kreme donuts. Choose your fats wisely (more on good fats in the future). Whole milk has 150 calories and skim milk has 80 calories per 1 cup.

Breaking Down the Food Label

** Courtesy of US Nutritional Facts Label**

The first step is to find out how many portions are in the package. For this example, a serving of Macaroni and Cheese is one cup but there are two servings per container. Therefore, if you ate the entire box, you’d have to double everything on the label. If you ate the entire box yourself, you would have consumed 500 calories, not 250. I had a doctor run up to me once with a large container of Nestlé’s Chocolate Milk and say “This whole container only contains 200 calories.” I read the food label and said, “Per serving. This has two servings, you just drank 400 calories.” You should have seen the look on her face.

Also the label compares how much fat comprises those 250 calories: 110. This product gets half its calories from fat. Section 3 lets you know how much fat, cholesterol and sodium (salt) are in the product. The reason they give you that % daily value, is that if you do not know how many milligrams to consume, it compares it with the daily total calories should eat. I tell clients to strive for an average of 10%. The purple section explains that 5% is low and 20% is high. If you are trying to decrease your intake of these additives because you already consume too much, this will guide you in the right direction.

Other Important Sections
If you are counting carbs or have diabetes, the most important section for you is the Total Carbohydrates. 15gms equals one serving. So this package has two carbohydrate servings, (if you eat the whole box it has four). I recommend three carb servings per meal max or 45gms of carbs total per meal. I’d rather you eat more meat and vegetables instead of the starch.

Fiber is very important. 20-30gms of fiber a day is needed. Choose foods high in fiber. 5gms of fiber per serving, is a high fiber food. Shoot for this. As you can see, this product has none.

Sugars are either natural or added. Breakfast cereals like Lucky Charms will of course have added sugar. But foods such as juice will have natural sugar like fructose, milk will have lactose, (notice they both end in –ose). This isn’t necessarily bad, just be conscious of the amounts listed.

Protein is important and will keep you full. People that eat carbs all day long are always having highs and lows throughout the day and are chasing their hunger, never really feeling satisfied. Foods high in protein will keep you full longer and help you feel satisfied. Choose products with at least 5gms of protein as well.

The blue Vitamin and Mineral section lets you know if the food is providing any valuable nutrients. This product is very low.

Looking at a Nutrient Dense Food Label

The most important thing i see on this food label is that for a mere 140 calories you are receiving a third of your fiber needs for the day and as much protein if you consumed 2 whole eggs. That’s what you want to look for. A food that is nutrient dense. A lot of nutrients for the smallest amount of calories provided.

The final item I want to mention, are the ingredients. They are listed in order according to their weight and amounts in the food. The first ingredient signifies what the food contains the most of. The first five ingredients, therefore, make up the majority of the food. Most importantly, the less ingredients they have, the more natural they are. For example, these are the ingredients in Steel cut oats: Whole Grain Steel Cut Oats. One ingredient. That’s it. Want to know the ingredients in Froot Loops Cereal? Well, you can look that up online yourself. Let’s just say the first ingredient is sugar and there are many different food colorings added. There are also words I cannot pronounce.

I Know it’s Summer, but how about some homework?
Your homework for tonight. Look through your pantries and read your own food labels. Let me know what the first five ingredients are in your favorite foods. Tell me if you can pronounce all of them. The let me know if your foods are high in fiber and protein. Are they low in sodium? Most importantly what is the serving size and how does it compare to what you’ve been eating?

For extra credit, throw out all the junk that doesn’t comprise a nutrient dense food (Food that is very low in calories but packs a large amount of nutrients, fiber and protein in a serving). Then off to the supermarket to replace it with fruits, veggies, meat, dairy and high fiber foods.

Good luck. Let me know what changes you made too. I love hearing from you!


CHRISTINE ARDIGO – Author of Cheating to SurviveEvery Five Years & The Bridges Before Us

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14 Thoughts on “Taking Control of Your Portion Sizes

  1. Robin Blumstein on July 24, 2013 at 9:19 am said:

    Chris, very helpful article. Already printed it out and posted on my refrigerator. Thank you so much!

    • Christine on July 24, 2013 at 1:30 pm said:

      Thank you Robin! If there is anything else you need help with or any ideas for the future please let me know.

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  3. Excellent post. Thanks for the information!

  4. Loved this particuliarly since I try to tell people to shop the perimeters in the store. Not buying food with labels is awesome and easy to remember!

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  6. This is a great post, I’m glad I came across your blog today:) I even had to tweet it out to my followers:) I really do need to pay better attention to the ingredients when choosing foods!! Thanks for sharing!!!

  7. Very good article. I can so relate to how you started this article off. I need a food scale.

    • Christine on November 16, 2013 at 8:16 pm said:

      Thank you! Once you get used to the size and amounts of portions, you wont need the scale anymore. It becomes ingrained in your head! <3

  8. That was easy for me to process. Great post

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