Have you ever measured out a bowl of cereal? Like, actually used a measuring cup to figure out the portion size?
When I was in high school, I always just assumed a serving size was…I don’t know…a bowl? I would just fill the cereal up to the brim of the bowl and then add some milk. I imagine that’s probably what most people do.
The first time I ever looked at the nutrition facts (in college), I was floored. 3/4 of a cup? Who eats that little when they’re making a bowl of cereal? Then, I measured out an actual “bowl.” It came in around 3 cups in total. That felt like a pretty normal portion size.
If you look at the nutrition facts for Honey Nut Cheerios, for example, you’ll notice that in 3 cups, you’re consuming 36g of sugar! For comparison, that’s about the equivalent of a coke. One Coke every morning without realizing it. Obviously, my “healthy breakfast” wasn’t as healthy as I once thought.
Today, I want to talk about portion sizes, or more specifically, how to use portion sizes to build the perfect plate of food. The good news is that there’s no weighing or measuring involved.
The Downsides of Counting Calories
I recently listened to an episode of the CrossFit podcast with Athena Perez. She’s lost over 200 lbs thanks to CrossFit and a hardcore revamp of her diet. Midway through the interview, she mentioned something that many might find surprising – she’s never counted a single calorie throughout her entire journey.
When we think about nutrition, calories quickly come to mind. The importance of calories has been emphasized over and over again in the media. If you want to get healthier, the thinking goes, you have to count calories.
Can we talk for a second about how tedious it is to count calories throughout the day? First, you have to actually remember to track everything you eat. Next, you have to find the specific food in whatever app you’re using. Then, there’s always the guessing game of, “Well, was that one serving or a bit more/less?” Even if you did all of that work perfectly, it’s hard to overcome that fact that calorie counts can be off by as much as 25%. It truly is an imperfect science. (P.S. That’s why we emphasize the quality of food, not counting calories in our nutrition challenge.)
Does calorie counting have it’s place? Maybe in some cases. Certain individuals might like to record everything they’re eating and see the raw numbers. For most of us though, it’s not a sustainable way of eating for the long haul.
Practical Portion Control
Counting calories is one way to manage portion sizes. There’s a better way though, and it doesn’t use a fancy app. It uses your hands! They’re always with you; they don’t change in size; and they work even when you don’t have a WiFi signal. 😉
Let’s take a peek at how this works.
- Your palm is about the equivalent of 3 ounces. Use this when you’re measuring protein sources like chicken, beef, or pork. For example, a steak that’s the size and thickness of your palm should be around 3 ounces.
- Your fist is about 1 cup. Use this for estimating veggies, fruit…you name it! The infographic below mentions rice. We recommend staying away from starchy carbs and choosing better sources instead!
- Your cupped hand (think holding your hand out for change) is about 1/2 cup. You can use that to measure things like nuts or in my case, my morning serving of berries.
- Your full thumb is about two tablespoons. That’s a handy (sorry, I had to use it once) reference point for butter, for example.
- Your fingertip (think from your last knuckle to end of your finger) is about 1 teaspoon. Use it as a reference when adding spices or how much sugar you add to your morning coffee.
Building the Perfect Dinner Plate
Okay – so we have these references, but how exactly do you us them? Let’s see how these might work together for the average individual trying to measure out the proteins, carbs, and fats they want in each meal. I really like this guide from Precision Nutrition as a starting point.
For an average male eating somewhere between 2,300 and 3,000 calories a day:
- 2 palms of protein (aka 6 ounces)
- 2 fists of vegetables (aka 2 cups)
- 2 cupped hands of good carbohydrates (aka 1 cup)
- 2 thumb-sized portions of fat (aka 4 tablespoons)
You can modify each segment up or down based on what you want in the meal. If you used that as a starting block every time you sat down to build your plate and chose whole, nutritious foods, you’d be in a pretty decent spot!