How much should I eat?
Updated: Mar 31, 2021
Portion size is something that many of my clients tell me that they struggle with, so today I'm going to share 2 different techniques for learning how to eat the amount of food that's right for you. The first will be favored by my left-brained, analytical friends who prefer structure and concrete guidelines. The second will appeal to my right-brained friends who do well with a bit more ambiguity and a reliance on their gut (literally!). I've also included some associated tips for weight loss, if that's one of your health related goals.
Hand Portion Technique
The first technique, which I've borrowed from Precision Nutrition, is to use your hand as a guide for portion control. The beauty of this technique is that it's simple - no weighing or measuring required and it's always available to you. Additionally, it's perfectly proportioned to you. Women and people with a smaller stature are going to have smaller hands and thus will require less fuel, whereas men and larger stature people will have larger hands and require more fuel. When I look at the size of my hand compared to that of my teenage sons, it's no wonder I'm amazed at how much they can eat! For each meal, aim for 1-2 servings of each food group, or 4-6 total servings of each group over the course of a day.
This method works well and is easiest for meals where each food group is separate, for example a piece of chicken accompanied by a baked potato with butter and a serving of steamed carrots. It's a bit trickier when eating things where the various food groups have been combined like casseroles, soup, stir-fry, lasagna, pizza, etc. In that case, do your best to approximate servings based on the ratio of each component within the food. Stir-fry for example is mostly vegetables with some protein, whereas lasagna and pizza are mostly carbs and fat.
Virtually all "treats" are going to fall under the category of carbs, so a cupped hand is a good approximation of a serving. Another option is to check the food label on the package and use that as a guide. New labeling guidelines are now more helpful and will tell you how many cookies or crackers or pretzels or potato chips constitute a serving.
The hand portion method can be used even if you follow a specific eating style that limits certain food groups such as low carb or keto. In this case, the total number of servings you'd eat in a day remains the same, you just shift away from the food group you are avoiding in favor of the others. So in the case of keto, you'd move the 4-6 servings of carbs to fats and with low carb you might keep a serving or two of carbs and move the remaining ones to either protein or fat. Eating 4 to 6 servings of vegetables each day is a great foundation regardless of whatever eating style you prefer (says the mom and nutritionist in me!) 😊
Eat to Comfortably Satisfied
The second portion control technique involves tuning into your hunger and fullness signals. Its origins come from intuitive eating, and it's a fantastic way to develop more mindfulness and awareness of the physical needs of your body.
With this technique think of your hunger and fullness as a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is starving, the hungriest you can imagine being; and 10 is uncomfortably, painfully stuffed. As a general guideline, you want to eat when your hunger is between a 3 and 4 and when you finish a meal, you want to be comfortably satisfied, between a 7 and 8. When you first start using this method, it's helpful to check in and actually rate your hunger before you start eating, once or twice throughout the meal and again at the end. Over time, as you practice, you'll find that you will naturally stay within the optimal zone.
This technique can be particularly effective for those who struggle with emotional eating, stress eating or simply eating out of habit or boredom as it teaches you to differentiate between physical hunger - a need for fuel for energy, and emotional or psychological hunger - a need for something that food doesn't actually provide.
With physical hunger you'll notice:
Emptiness in stomach, grumbling or growling
Feeling shaky or low energy
Lightheadedness, dizziness or headache
All foods are appealing, especially something substantial with protein, vegetables, carbs and fats
It builds gradually over time
You feel better after eating
Whereas with emotional or psychological hunger you'll experience:
Cravings or urges for specific foods, usually ones that are high in carbs, sugar, salt and/or fat
Sudden onset often triggered by thoughts or external cues such as seeing the food
Urgency and a strong desire that's difficult to ignore
Distraction, numbing or comfort while eating as opposed to true satiation or satisfaction
Feelings of guilt, regret or shame afterwards
When you check in with the hunger scale and discover that you aren't physically hungry, you then have the opportunity to get curious about the impulse or desire to reach for food. The HALT technique can help identify underlying emotions or other physical needs and provide alternative ways to satisfy those needs.
If weight loss is one of your goals, here are a few additional tips:
Portion your food onto a plate or bowl rather than eating directly from the package and then eat mindfully. It's easy to lose track of how much you've eaten when you are constantly dipping into the package. Additionally, when you can see that you are down to the last few bites, you can intentionally savor them instead of reaching into the bag only to discover it's empty and be left feeling dissatisfied.
When creating a meal - whether you're making supper, planning your menu for the week, eating out, serving yourself from a buffet, etc. start by first choosing a quality source of lean protein (things like chicken, beef, pork, fish or beans versus deli or processed meats, sausage, ribs or wings) and two servings of vegetables, then round out the meal with carbs and fat.
If you are a card-carrying member of the clean plate club and/or hate wasting food, serve yourself a slightly smaller portion, 5-10% less than you normally would. Most often you'll discover that you are satisfied with the lesser amount, and if you are still hungry, you can always have more.
Eat slowly. It takes time for our stomach to register fullness and pass the signal along to our hormones. If you eat quickly you can easily end up at an 8 or 9 on the fullness scale before you check-in.
Don't let yourself get too hungry. It's harder to make healthy choices when you want whatever is fastest and easiest. You're also more likely to eat quickly and end up either overeating or not feeling fully satisfied.
When it comes to hyperpalatable processed foods (Oreos, chocolate bars, crackers, potato chips, cheezies, pizza pops, etc), our natural hunger and fullness signals can be fooled due to the lack of actual nutrients for the body. The solution is to eat slowly and mindfully, really paying attention to the tastes and associated feelings of pleasure and satisfaction instead of physical fullness, and then stopping once you notice that each subsequent bite offers less and less enjoyment. This can be challenging and takes practice, so for some, the hand portion method may work better at least until you become more proficient with intuitive eating.
I encourage you to experiment with both techniques, individually as well as in combination, and discover what works best for you.
The hand portion technique tends to works best for those that like rules and structure; are trying to eat more balanced meals; when it's easier to separate out the various food groups; as a starting point if you're new to portion control and are not sure where to start or have trouble identifying sensations of hunger and fullness.
The eat to comfortably satisfied technique is great for those who want a natural or instinctive approach to eating; chronic or yo-yo dieters done with dieting, rules and restriction and looking for a more intuitive approach; those desiring fewer rules on what to eat and prefer instead to use mindfulness and awareness to respond to how food affects you physically.