Were you brought up to finish every last bit of food on your plate before you left the dinner table? Have you found yourself eating food at a social event, simply because it’s there, even though you’re not even hungry? If you have, you’re not alone.
Over time, as a culture, we’ve been gradually enjoying a little extra energy in our diet here and there, whether it’s part of a balanced diet or not. Whether it’s a main meal, snack or drink, we often eat or drink up whatever is placed in front of us. And this happens regardless of how hungry we feel at the time.
As portion sizes of food and drink have grown over time, we start to think of these as ‘normal’. Known as ‘portion distortion’, this unfortunately contributes further to overeating and an unbalanced energy intake.1,2
The amount of food we normally choose to eat is determined by how hungry we feel at the time. In theory, we should select an amount of food we think we need, and then stop eating when we start to feel full. In reality, the amount we actually eat is often more influenced by the portion of food we are served, rather than letting hunger and fullness be our guide.3 Simply put, we’re more likely to overeat if we serve up too much food, or if there is access to food for us to continuously graze on.
Without hunger cues, determining the amount of food we require as part of a balanced diet becomes extremely tricky.3 In this case, we normally eat the food because it’s there. Have you ever found yourself grazing on foods while you cook dinner, finding you’re almost full by dinner time, but then finish your whole meal anyway? Consistently consuming food or drinks in the absence of hunger is where we can start to see how strongly our habits influence our eating.
Having an awareness of portion sizes and strategies to manage portion sizes, can help us consistently eat foods in a healthy and balanced way. This may sound complicated, but there’s actually a simple solution. By dividing your plate into sections for different food types, you can easily manage your energy intake and prevent overeating.
5 simple steps for a balanced meal
Step 1: Choose a medium-sized dinner plate
The first step for managing portions is selecting a plate, bowl or cup that is an appropriate size. While we might like to serve food on large plates or supersize our cups, research has shown that simply reducing the size of a bowl, plate or cup helps us maintain or achieve a healthy weight.1
Step 2: Fill half your plate with vegetables
You can’t overeat vegetables. They’re the most nutrient-dense foods around, and they increase the size of your meal without adding excess energy. Increasing your vegetable serves per day can decrease your risk of death from heart disease, even if you change nothing else about the way you eat.
Choose as many as you like of the following to fill half the plate:
Step 3: Fill one quarter of your plate with a carbohydrate source
Carbohydrates are our preferred source of fuel for energy, and while there is no need to completely remove or dramatically reduce carbohydrate in our diets, intake should be moderated by good portion control. Choose sources of carbohydrate that offer plenty of fibre. Fibre offers many health benefits and slows digestion for longer lasting energy.
Choose one of the following to fill one quarter of the plate:
½ – 1 cup chickpeas
½ cup quinoa
½ cup brown rice
½ cup cooked pasta
½ – 1 cup four bean mix
1 medium wholegrain wrap
1 small English muffin
2 whole meal sandwich thins
½ cup corn
1 medium wholegrain bread roll
200g sweet potato (this is equivalent to the size of your fist)
1 medium potato (this is equivalent to the size of your fist)
Step 4: Fill one quarter of your plate with a protein source
Protein has many important roles in the body, and it also helps with weight management and appetite control. This is because protein takes longer to digest and triggers the production of fullness hormones in the brain.
Choose one of the following to fill one quarter of the plate:
150g tin tuna
150g cooked fish
100g cooked lean beef
100g cooked chicken
150g shredded ham (off the bone)
70g low fat feta
2 boiled eggs
½ cup (120g) ricotta cheese
Step 5: Complete your plate with a healthy fat source
Fat can slow digestion, and adding a source of healthy fat to your meal or snack can help stave off hunger before your next meal. Just remember that fat is very energy dense, and portions should be kept small to help manage your weight.
Choose one of the following:
1 tbsp toasted pine nuts
1 tbsp raw or flaked almonds
1 tbsp salad dressing
½ tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
50g roast capsicum in oil
50g sun-dried tomato in oil
1 tbs peanut butter
2 tbs hummus
Examples of ideal meals
- Stir-fried chicken and vegetables with ½ cup brown rice
- Sesame crusted salmon with avocado salad and one medium baked potato
- Chilli beef noodles
Extra tips for managing portions
- Practice makes perfect! Follow the steps above and practice visualising serving sizes to help control your portions. You’ll have no worries the next time you’re faced with a large buffet.
- To help monitor your intake, always serve food onto a dish before eating. Try not to eat straight from a packet or tub of food.
- Set aside leftovers before eating your meal. You’ll then have a healthy, balanced lunch ready to go for the next day.
- Portion sizes can be very large when we eat out, so try sharing a main meal with someone else. Consider adding an extra side of vegetables too.
- Practice mindful eating. Think about your meal, slow down your eating and simply enjoy the experience. Avoiding other distractions while eating can help us become more in tune with our internal hunger and fullness cues.
- Queensland Health, Nutrition Education Materials Online. How understanding portion sizes can help you meet your healthy eating goals. 2018. [cited 29 July 2019]. Available from: www.health.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0030/148818/wtmgt-portions.pdf
- Australian Healthy Food Guide. Are you suffering from portion distortion? 2013. [cited 29 July 2019]. Available from: www.healthyfoodguide.com.au/articles/2013/november/are-you-suffering-portion-distortion
- Nguyen A, Chern C, Tan S. Estimating portion size verses actual intake of eight commonly consumed foods by healthy adults. Nutrition & dietetics. 2016;73:490-497.
About the author
The Healthy Eating Hub
This article was written by an Accredited Practicing Dietitian from The Healthy Eating Hub. The Healthy Eating Hub is a team of university-qualified nutritionists and dietitians who are passionate about helping people develop long term healthy eating habits through offering evidence-based and practical nutrition advice that people can put into practice straight away.