Portion control: When size matters

When it comes to losing weight, many of us focus on making changes to our diet, but while ditching junk food is important, paying attention to how much you are eating is also important.

Accredited Practising Dietitian, Gemma Cosgriff says managing your weight often involves making decisions about what and how much you eat.

“Obviously, if we eat too much, we can gain weight,” she says.

“But it is also possible to eat too little, which causes our body to respond in a way to conserve energy without the predictability of regular fuel. Once this happens, our body slows down the rate of energy used, thereby slowing down our metabolism, making it harder for us to lose weight.”

Cosgriff says the goal around losing weight is to create a slight deficit between the energy we take in (food) and the energy we use (kilojoules burned).

What should we be eating?

For optimal health, it is recommended that we eat from five different food groups. The Australian Dietary Guidelines (ADG) recommends that in order to meet our nutritional requirements, we eat a recommended number of serves each day. This equates to:

  • Vegetables and legumes: it is recommended that we eat at least five serves of vegetables and legumes/beans each day. 
  • Fruit: it is recommended that we eat two serves of fruit each day.
  • Grains: it is recommended that we wat at least four to six serves of grain (cereal) foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high fibre varieties each day. 
  • Lean meats and poultry – it is recommended that you eat at between one to three serves of lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds and legumes/beans
  • Dairy – it is recommended that you eat two to three serves of milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or alternatives, mostly reduced fat, each day.

Of course, the number of serves required may depend upon your age, gender, whether you are pregnant or lactating and how active you are.

Too much of a good thing

Even though focusing on healthy foods is desirable and always the preferred option, Cosgriff says it’s possible to eat too many of the right foods.

“There are some vegetables that are higher in energy than others, such as potato, sweet potato and corn, so eating too many of these will make it harder to create that energy deficit. The same applies to fruit, even though it is rich in nutrients. Basically, too much of anything can mean we miss out on other important nutrients and create an imbalance in our intake. Variety is indeed the spice of life and good health,” she says.

Woman eating

How much should we eat?

While the ADG recommend a certain number of serves, Cosgriff says portion sizes may differ according to hunger levels and individual requirements, hence the ranges presented in the ADG.

She says the best way to work out what portions work for you is to monitor your hunger levels (and make sure to slow down your eating so you give your body time to give you the cue that you’re satisfied) and adjust the portion accordingly. She also advises monitoring weight and measurements, to ensure you are not gaining weight.

When it comes to working out portion sizes, Cosgriff says the best start is to use visual cues.

“When looking at your dinner plate, for example, half of it should be vegetables, a quarter of it a source of protein and the remaining quarter a source of carbohydrate. Monitoring how you feel after eating will give you an idea on whether you need to adjust the amount of protein or carbs, but you should stick to half your plate being filled with veggies,” she says.

Portions when eating out

Portions can often be larger when eating out. To manage this, Cosgriff suggests you share food where you can and order a variety of dishes, including vegetable-based ones. You could also ask for a kids’ size meal, as some restaurants allow this, or order an entree size.

Other ways to control your portions include choosing healthier options, such as salad-based meals with dressing on the side, asking for a half-serve (some restaurants offer this without stating it on the menu), or dividing your meal in half and asking to take the leftovers home.

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