The “Portion Size” Problem

I’ve got a bone to pick with the idea of portion sizes.

People come into my office all up in arms about how much of a certain food they should be eating, and assigning an inflexible value that somebody decided was the “appropriate amount to eat”. The deck of cards for meat comes to mind, a reference that you have probably heard.

So what’s my problem?

The amount of any food that is appropriate varies based on the individual. 

Who came up with this stuff anyway? Every nutrition label has to state a serving size so that measures of calories and nutrients can be stated for a specific amount. These serving sizes are supposed to be the “Reference Amounts Customarily Consumed”, but I can tell you for sure that most people “customarily consume” more than 12 Tostitos in one sitting. Still, it’s helpful to know what’s in a given amount. But does that mean you’re only “supposed” to eat the serving size stated on a package? HELL NO.

Maybe you should eat more. Maybe you should eat less. How do you know? Let’s take a closer look.

Factors that affect how much you should eat in general (i.e. your daily calorie requirement)

  • Gender – Men burn more than women, period.
  • Age – Kids need a ton of calories per kg because they’re growing and their bodies need fuel and raw materials to literally build that child. This slows way down as we stop growing, and as we get older metabolism in general slows and muscle mass decreases, which results in decreased nutrient requirements.
  • Height – Taller people have more mass, and need more energy to power more body!
  • Weight – Same as above
  • Exercise in leisure time – A person training for an Ironman requires more calories than a person who walks for exercise 3x/week.
  • Activity level at work – Less obvious than intentional physical activity is the energy expended at work. All other factors the same, a person working on their feet will need more calories than a person sitting at a desk all day (the bane of my existence!!)
  • Losing weight? Gaining muscle? – Depending on your body goals, your needs will be different. Weight loss requires less calories, gaining muscle requires increased calories and especially protein.
  • Illness – When you’re sick, your calorie requirements increase because your body is working hard to fight off that illness. Granted, it’s likely that you’re burning less too if you’re being good and resting, but it’s something to think about.


Clearly there are a lot of factors that govern how much different people need to eat, and one standard set of portion sizes can’t possibly apply to all people. There’s something else I much prefer to focus on – read on to learn!


If not portion size, then what?

I do realize it seems insane that a dietitian is telling you not to focus on portion size, but that’s not completely true – there are things that you do need to be careful with, which is mostly foods high in fat and sugar. But the truth is, if you’re eating mostly fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins in the proper proportions; portion size shouldn’t be an issue. 

KEY TAKE AWAY —> Proportions > Portions

What are the proper proportions?


You have heard me preach this before. Fill 1/2 your plate with vegetables, 1/4 your plate with starch, and 1/4 your plate with protein, more or less. Then be mindful (this is where many people go wrong). Are you still hungry? Go get some more food, but make sure you still have mostly vegetables, some starch and some protein. If you’re not hungry, you don’t need more food, no matter how tasty it was. This is what we call balance. The “portions” you choose should be the right amount to satisfy your hunger; my portion is definitely less than my boyfriend’s portion (well, maybe not on heavy training weeks 😉 ) By making half your plate vegetables you will ensure that you’re not going overboard on calories, fat, or sugar; which are commonly consumed in excess in the standard American diet.

It should be noted that there are certain groups of people who have needs that vary from this: body builders require more protein, endurance athletes may need more carbohydrate, and certain disease states may necessitate greater intakes of fat; but the plate method is a GREAT guide for most people.

I did mention that there are some foods for which you should keep a standard portion size in mind. Some of these are very healthy, frequently eaten foods; and some of these should be your “sometimes” foods. Here’s a run down:

Frequently eaten foods where portion size matters

  • Nuts, seeds, and nut butters: Nuts have a lot of fat, but it’s good fat – the kind that can lower cholesterol, reduce inflammation, etc. That’s why they’re a great addition to the diet! However, it’s really easy to underestimate the calories in nuts, so understanding what a typical 1-ounce portion looks like is crucial. Try pairing this portion with a less calorie-dense food (like a fruit) that will take up space in your stomach. That will give you a feeling of fullness now, and the nuts with their protein, fiber, and fat will extend that fullness for hours.
  • Dressings and oils: Same deal here – dressings and oils can contain healthy fats, but fat is still very high in calories. Be moderate about it, understand the amount of calories per unit volume (i.e. there are 117 calories in a single tablespoon of olive oil) and adjust the amount you’re using accordingly. Oftentimes, dressings can be thinned out with extra vinegar or lemon juice in order to make the same amount work on a greater volume of salad greens while still tasting awesome. Try getting a mister for your oils to avoid accidentally over-pouring when all you need is a little bit to get things cooking in the pan.
  • Cheese – Cheese is most often a high fat food, with some exceptions. There are several low-fat cheeses that are actually delicious (hello, string cheese, my love!) but for the most part they’re pretty hefty in terms of fat grams and calories. However, cheese is the bomb. A cheese plate every now and then (especially from here) is something to savor and appreciate, but try to put some fruits and veggies out for snacking too so your entire meal isn’t hunks of fat. When cooking with cheese or adding to salads, choose cheeses with strong flavor so you can keep the actual quantity small while the flavor stays big. There is a smoky blue cheese that I love for salads, and a nice sharp parmesan or romano works wonders atop Italian dishes. Use cheese as an enhancement rather than the star of the show, it will still be delicious I promise.
  • Anything you know you eat a ton of: This is different for everybody, but a lot of times it’s carbohydrate. Y’all know I love carbs. Carbohydrate is not the enemy. However, if one piece of bread inevitably turns into a full loaf, or if your bowl of cereal ends up being half the box, you probably require the reality check that is looking at the serving size in relation to the calories you need daily. For some people, being mindful of this may be tough, and it may be essential to pre-portion snack foods into ziploc bags.


“In moderation” foods where portion size matters

  • Chips and other fried snack foods – High fat = high calories, and often a bag is several “servings”. Not understanding the amount of calories that you’re consuming can easily lead to eating too much.
  • Baked goods – I don’t think anyone expects a brownie or cupcake to be a healthy option, but you should know the size of the serving that will fit healthfully into your daily calories.
  • Ice cream, candy – fat + sugar = more calories than you think. Just be aware.


The most important points in all of this are the following: choose healthful, nutritious foods and listen to your hunger signals. Build your meals wisely so that you don’t go overboard, and know that the amount that you need is different than the amount that someone else needs. Health is a very personal thing – do what’s best for your body.



3 responses to “The “Portion Size” Problem

  1. Dang.. How did I miss this post until now? I am usually the first one to read (besides you, Lauren!) and comment!


  2. (Oops. Hit the Send key too soon) Anyway, where I run into trouble with my proportions is that I count on legumes (chick peas, black eyed peas, kidney beans etc) for my protein and it unfortunately doubles up as starch (in addition to the Quionoa or Farro that also fills up my plate)… Thoughts?



    • Yep, the vegetarian protein conundrum unfortunately throws the plate method off. I’d say for the purposes of proportions, count both the legumes and grains together in 1/3 of the plate and bump up the veggies; unless that’s not giving you enough calories (which you’d know by tracking) in which case go half legumes half starch. Either way you decide to do it, if you’ve got at least half your plate full of vegetables you’re going to be better off than the typical tiiiiny portion of veg and giant heaping pile of starch. Vegetarian diets are typically higher in carbohydrate, and especially for someone who participates in a lot of endurance exercise, I wouldn’t worry unless you had a blood sugar/insulin resistance issue.


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