Measuring Portions – How much am I really eating?

When trying to reach or stay at a healthy weight, it is important to focus on portion sizes. Focusing on portion sizes can keep you from overeating.

A “portion” is the amount of food that you choose to eat. A “serving” is a recommended amount of food often found on a Nutrition Facts panel. Portion sizes may be more or less than a serving. But if you focus on measuring your portions, they will reflect the recommended serving size, which will help you maintain a balanced and healthy diet.

Food Groups

When eating a healthy meal, your plate should be half non-starchy vegetables, a quarter grains and starches, and a quarter protein. You can also have a small amount of dairy and fruit and a drink that has low or no calories. The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) MyPlate recommends that individuals get 5 servings of vegetables, 4 servings of fruit, 6 servings of grains, 2.5 servings of protein, 3 servings of dairy, and 3 servings of healthy oils per day.

Each food group plays an essential part in the functioning of our body. The table below lists the benefits and examples of each food group.

Benefits and Examples of Each Food Group

Food Group Benefits Examples
  • Excellent source of vitamins and minerals
  • Contains large amounts of fiber
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Reduces risk of heart disease and stroke
  • Can prevent some types of cancer
  • Spinach
  • Green beans
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Cucumbers
  • Excellent source of vitamins and minerals
  • Contains large amounts of fiber
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Reduces risk of heart disease and stroke
  • Can prevent some types of cancer
  • Strawberries
  • Apples
  • Grapes
  • Oranges
  • Mango
  • Pineapple
  • Kiwi
Whole Grains
  • Provide the body with energy
  • Contain fiber, iron, and many B vitamins
  • Bread with 100% whole wheat flour
  • Brown rice
  • Barley
  • Oats and oatmeal
  • Helps keep our bodies feeling full
  • Can help you gain muscle and strength
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Seafood
  • Poultry
  • Nuts
  • Good sources of calcium and vitamins A and D
  • Cheese
  • Milk
  • Yogurt

You also need a small amount of fat in your diet for healthy functioning. Healthy oils and fats can help your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, and K. Healthy fats can come from avocados, nuts, olives, peanut butter, and certain oils (olive, canola, peanut, and sesame). Other healthy fats are found in tofu; sunflower, sesame, and pumpkin seeds; soymilk; fatty fish (salmon, tuna, trout); and fish oil.

Measuring Portions

To make sure you meet the MyPlate daily recommendations without overeating, it is important to measure how much you are eating. The Nutrition Facts label on most products will state the amount that is in one serving. There are several ways you can measure serving size. You can use measuring cups and spoons, a kitchen scale, or a calculator. It can be difficult to measure out your food when you do not have these tools with you. One easy way to estimate serving sizes is to use your hand as a reference. The chart below displays several comparisons you can make to measure serving sizes with your hand.

Measure Serving Sizes with your Hand

Amount Comparison
3 ounces Palm of Hand

½ cup Thumb, ring finger, and middle finger in a fist

¼ cup Inside palm when your hand is in a cupped position

1 cup Fist

1 tablespoon Entire thumb

1 teaspoon Knuckle to the tip of the thumb

You can also use various everyday objects to estimate serving size. The chart below shows several comparisons between everyday objects.

Comparisons Between Everyday Objects

Amount Comparison
3 ounces Bar of soap; deck of cards
½ cup Computer mouse; light bulb
1/3 cup Tennis ball

1/4 cup Golf ball; one egg
1 cup Baseball

1 tablespoon Poker chip

1 teaspoon Spoonful

Overall, these comparisons can be convenient and useful when you do not have measuring cups on hand. It is important to be mindful and aware of the size of the portions you are consuming. Make sure to check the Nutrition Facts labels on foods for recommended serving sizes. Use the USDA’s MyPlate recommendations to ensure you are meeting recommendations for each essential food group.

How to Track

Tracking your food can help you reach a healthy weight goal and maintain a balanced diet. Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Health Research published a study of nearly 1700 participants. They found that people who kept daily food records lost twice as much weight as those who kept no records. Food tracking can help you become aware of eating behaviors and food choices. It can create a sense of accountability and can help you discover adjustments that you need to make. By analyzing a food journal or app, you may find ways to cut back on calories by eating less fat, smaller portions that reflect recommended serving sizes, or fewer sweetened beverages. Food tracking can also show your eating habits and can display your progress over time.

You can track your food in several ways. Tracking your food can be important for weight loss and a healthy diet. It gives you a visible representation of what you eat throughout the day and can help you meet your nutrition goals. Using a notebook or a spreadsheet is a great way to write down the foods you eat. There are also several apps for your Smartphone that can help you log your meals. MyFitnessPal, MyNetDiary, MyPlate Calorie Counter, and Nutrition Facts are all free phone apps that can help you keep track of the foods you eat throughout the day. Practice writing the time of day and what food or beverage you consumed. You can also write the amount consumed and the number of calories. Most of the apps listed previously have calorie counters and can give you the nutrition facts of several foods. Practice using a food log or apps to track your food to have a healthy and balanced diet.

Focusing on portion size is an important factor that can help you avoid overeating. By using your hands, measuring cups, or items you have around your house, you can accurately track what you are eating to help you eat smaller portions and reach the USDA’s MyPlate daily recommendations for each food group.


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Originally published 01/21

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