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8 Tips to Manage How Much You Eat Through Portion Control

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Oranges with a tape measure

Fifty-four percent of Americans eat until their plates are clean. It certainly doesn’t help that plate sizes have grown over the past three decades. What was once a nine-inch plate is now a 12-inch platter. In one study, researchers asked two groups of participants to help themselves to a bowl of ice cream. One group was given a 34-ounce dish; the other a 17-ounce dish. Not surprisingly, they found people with the bigger bowls consumed more ice cream, 31 percent more. In a world where huge portions abound, there is hope. Practice the following eight tips to become more portion savvy.

1. Downsize your plates and dishes. You may not need to purchase an entirely new set of dishware to accomplish this goal but consider using salad plates for dinner and dinner plates for platters. Instead of using a large bowl for cereal, try a coffee mug instead. It’s visually more satisfying to see a full plate and even if you “clean” your plate, you’re still eating less overall. This is mind trickery at work.

2. Divide your plate before your first bite. This is especially helpful when you are trying to slim down. Either buy a pre-divided plate or mentally cut it in half. Fill one half with non-starchy vegetables such as broccoli, carrots, asparagus, green beans, yellow squash or salad greens (or both!). Divide the other side in half again. Fill one quarter with lean protein such as grilled chicken or baked fish and reserve the final quarter for a small serving of fiber-rich carbohydrates such as whole grain quinoa or a sweet potato (#8 below for eyeballing servings of common foods). Visit for more information to build a healthy plate. 

3. Pre-portion out snacks. It’s easy to go through a whole box of crackers if you’re eating straight out of the container. First read the labels for the serving size and then pre-plate or pre-pack that amount in a snack-size bag. Some snacks are already pre-portioned such as high-fiber granola bars, 100 calorie bags of nuts or single-size nonfat yogurt cups. This works well because it has a built-in portion control system.

4. Limit your options. Simplify your pantry with fewer choices of cereal, crackers and most packaged foods. The more options you have, the more you will tend to eat. Researchers discovered how true this is in a study where two groups were given jelly beans to snack on during a movie. The participants either got a jumbled mix of various jelly beans or the candy neatly organized in a divided container by color group. The people who ate the colorful mixture ate twice the amount.

5. Turn off and tune in. It is difficult to pay attention to fullness cues if you are distracted by the television, computer, iPad, phone or other high-tech devices. Pause the technology and pay attention to the act of eating when you are eating. This may help you pace yourself and eat less. You may even savor your meal or snack more!

6. Pull up a chair to eat. Pick a designated spot in your home and try to sit down at a table in your kitchen or dining room so you do not succumb to “drive-by” eating. The act of sitting down can slow you down and help keep you from mindlessly munching in front of the refrigerator or pantry.

7. Think before you drink. Americans drink excess calories from beverages, much of which comes from sugar-sweetened drinks such as soda, juice, 100% fruit juice, coffee beverages and energy drinks. Studies show drinking your calories does not have the same satisfying affect as eating solid food. Our brains do not appear to get the same appetite-suppressing message from liquids and we eat just as much regardless. Limit liquid calories by drinking more water and low-calorie beverages. Save your calories for chewing your food and for more satisfaction.

8. Keep your eye on the portion size. Learn to eyeball portion size. Use the information below to visualize the correct serving size.

  • Nuts - 1/4 cup (small handful)
  • Apple or orange - 1 small (tennis ball)
  • Baked potato - 1 medium (computer mouse)
  • Salad dressing - 2 Tbsp. (shot glass)
  • Chicken breast - 3 oz. (deck of cards)
  • Filet of fish - 3 oz. (checkbook)
  • Ice cream - 1/2 cup (light bulb)
  • Whole grain rice or pasta - 1/2 cup (half of a baseball)

For personalized nutrition guidance, visit the Cooper Clinic Nutrition Services web site to learn about one-on-one consultations with a Cooper Clinic Registered Dietitian Nutritionist or call 972.560.2655.

Article provided by Elana Paddock, RDN, LD, CDCES, registered and licensed dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Cooper Clinic.