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A guide to understanding portions

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Planning a nutritious, balanced diet is one thing, but consuming the recommended amount of food and drink is quite another. Discover the difference between a portion size and a serving size and the importance of both. 

What is a portion and why does it matter? 

How much food we consume will affect our calorie intake and therefore weight loss or gain.

Serving size or serving is the amount of food listed on a food label. It’s generally used to quantify a recommended amount to consume. 

Portion size is the amount of a given food you choose to eat. This can be more, less or the same as a serving. 

The government recommends a daily calorie intake of 2,000 calories for women and 2,500 calories for men to maintain weight. We should note though that this is generalised and will vary according to the individual. A more accurate reflection of your personal energy requirements can come from your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). This takes into account your height, weight, age and activity level to calculate your own personal recommendation. Illness, pregnancy and taking certain medicines can also change your energy needs. 

Making positive changes to our diet, like prioritising fruit and vegetables, will mean we boost the fibre, vitamins and minerals in our diet, and it can reduce the overall amount of calories we consume. It can be easy to over-consume calories as well if our portion sizes are too big. 

Everything in moderation? 

Not strictly, at least not in equal amounts. What is a moderate amount for one type of food, isn’t for another. The Eatwell Guide by the NHS shows us how to balance food groups to ensure we get all the nutrients we need. The overall balance of food groups should remain the same when adjusting portion control. 

What does a portion look like? 

If you want to see if you’re eating more than the suggested serving size then you can invest in some inexpensive digital kitchen scales. That’s the most accurate way to measure serving sizes recommended by manufacturers. You won’t always have to use the scales, but they’ll give you a good understanding and you’ll get familiar with how the amounts look on your plate. 

The British Nutrition Foundation have this guide to help us visualise food portions. Let’s look at a few examples of portions. 

  • 2 handfuls of dried pasta shapes or rice (75g) 
  • A bunch of spaghetti the size of a £1 coin, measured using your finger and thumb (75g) 
  • A baked potato about the size of your fist (220g) 
  • About 3 handfuls of breakfast cereal (40g) 
  • A piece of grilled chicken breast about half the size of your hand (120g) 
  • A piece of cheddar cheese about the size of two thumbs together (30g) About 1 tablespoon of peanut butter (20g) 

Portions from each food group we should aim to eat daily: 

  • Fruit and vegetables (berries, salads, leafy greens, root veg): 5+ portions per day 
  • Dairy/alternatives (milk, yoghurt): 2-3 portions per day 
  • Starchy carbohydrates (rice, pasta, potatoes): 3-4 portions per day 
  • Beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins: 2-3 portions per day 

Top tips for getting to grips with portions 

  • Get to know the meaning of food labels and the traffic light system. 
  • Think about what you’re eating, be mindful as you serve up and while you eat. 
  • Use scales and/or measuring cups to ensure accuracy. 
  • Avoid doubling up on carbs, like bread and rice with curry, choose one or have a half portion or both. 
  • Use a smaller plate. A smaller dish piled high is psychologically appealing and doesn’t leave you feeling short changed, plus it’s much harder to plate up an oversized portion. 
  • When dining out, avoid the buffet if you find it hard to gauge what you consume. 
  • Avoid second helpings by getting to know when you feel full. 
  • Try dishing up all the servings whether you’re eating alone or with company. That way any extra servings can be put into containers and kept for a later meal. 

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