Healthy Eating: Avoid Portion Pitfalls

Healthy Eating: Avoid Portion Pitfalls

Healthy Eating: Avoid Portion Pitfalls

Lee esto en EspañolMost people know they should eat nutritious foods to maintain a healthy weight and avoid serious health problems. Still, there may be a big part of healthy eating you’re not paying enough attention to — portion sizes.

What you eat matters. How much you eat of various foods is important, too. Keep a close eye on how much food you put on your plate. Not only will it help you avoid overeating, you may also find you can eat more than you thought. When you eat the right amounts of different food types, you can feel full enjoying a variety of foods without blowing your goal to eat healthy.

Portion Patrol: How Much Is a "Serving"?

Not all foods are equal, so the amount you eat matters. How much is the right amount? It depends on the food.

There are some foods you can load up on without guilt. There are others you should enjoy in moderation. Then there are tasty, often unhealthy foods you should skip or only eat in very small amounts.

The first step to controlling portion sizes is learning what makes up an ideal serving of different foods.

Recommended sizes are much smaller than you might think. An optimal serving of:

  • Baked potato should be the size of a computer mouse.
  • Pasta should be the size of a baseball.
  • Waffles (just one) should be the size of a DVD.
  • Cheese cubes should be four dice-sized pieces.
  • Peanut butter should be the size of a golf ball.
  • Meat should be the size of a deck of playing cards

It’s also important to understand the unhealthy food choices you’re making. Fast food, sugary desserts and sweet drinks might be among them. There are other foods that aren't unhealthy but can easily add up to too many calories if you aren't careful. 

Two “problem” foods — solid fats and added sugars — can make up hundreds of your daily calories. Replace them with healthier choices. Instead of butter and other solid fats, try olive, canola or other oils that are better for your waistline.

Check food labels and restaurant menus for hidden calories. Learn to "eyeball" your portion sizes to avoid overeating.

Fill ‘er Up

You can eat larger portions of filling, nutritious foods. Raw, steamed, grilled and baked vegetables are good examples. Enjoy generous servings of tomatoes, broccoli, asparagus, lettuce, celery, cauliflower, bell peppers, zucchinis, radishes and mushrooms. Add spices for flavor instead of fat or salt.

Fruit is full of vitamins. Eat as many lower-sugar fruits like grapefruit, kiwi, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries as you want. But trim your portions of higher-sugar fruits like apples, mangos, pineapple, oranges, cantaloupe and bananas. And eat the whole fruit, not just the juice. The sugar and carbohydrates in juices and higher-sugar fruits can add up to a lot of extra calories if you aren’t careful.

Eat These Things in Moderation

Eat foods that are higher in carbohydrates in smaller portions, and less often. That includes potatoes, grains, rice, white and wheat flour-based pasta, breads, and tortillas chips.

Legumes are filling, healthy and full of protein, but they’re also high in carbs. They include black beans, fava beans, lima beans, lentils and peas.

Eat moderate portion sizes of fat-free and low-fat milk, yogurt, cottage cheese and cream cheese. Eat fish and lean meats like white meat chicken and turkey, pork tenderloin, and beef tenderloin in moderation. Prepare it broiled, grilled, baked or pan sautéed, not fried.

Tips and Tricks

Try some of these portion-control tricks. They can help you avoid some common portion-size pitfalls:

  • Eat small portions throughout the day.
  • Split an entrée when eating out. Or box up half of your meal to take home.
  • At home, make a plate to take to the table. Don't put serving dishes on the table.
  • Eat on a smaller plate. You may feel like there’s more food there.
  • Put your fork or spoon down between each bite. Allow yourself to enjoy the flavors of the food.
  • Spoil your dinner — with vegetables or fruit. A healthy snack can help you avoid overeating later.
  • When you shop, make a list. Don’t impulse buy.
  • Put treats in a pantry or cupboard to keep them out of sight.
  • Don’t bring unhealthy food choices home. If you don’t have them, you can’t eat them.
  • Check the serving size on food labels. Divide a big package into small portions as soon as you bring it home.
  • Make sure children don’t eat adult-size portions of snacks or meals.
  • Use an online diet tracker. There are apps and sites that sync with your phone to help you stay on target.

Pay attention to what you eat — and how much. Make slow changes. Before long, your healthier eating will become a habit. Those new habits can be the path to better health.

Sources: The Health Effects of Overweight and Obesity, leaving site icon Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2022; Planning Meals and Snacks, leaving site icon CDC, 2022; Secrets of Healthy Eating and Portion Control, leaving site icon WebMD, 2023; Learn how to eat healthy with MyPlate, leaving site icon

Originally published 10/28/2016; Revised 2020, 2022, 2023