Teach Yourself Portion Control

Too much of a good thing is, well, still too much. If you're struggling to drop pounds, it may be your servings of healthy food that are weighing you down.

1 of 5

Make Food Do The Work


Losing weight would be a whole lot easier if we didn't have to monitor everything we put in our mouths. But the truth is, a calorie is a calorie, and having too many will pack on pounds, says Lisa Young, R.D., a dietician in New York City and author of The Portion Teller Plan (Broadway). "Nutritious foods like whole-wheat pasta and nuts can do just as much damage to a diet as pizza and cupcakes if you forget to watch how much you're eating," she says. To see serving-size slipups in action, we recruited two dozen volunteers and asked them to help themselves to five foods that are linked with a host of health benefits, including weight management. In nearly every case, our test subjects took more—sometimes two or three times more—than the recommended amount. Here's what we found, plus size-wise tips to make these nutritious foods do the weight-loss work for you.

Whole-grain cereal

Recommended serving: 3/4 cup (120 calories)
Testers' average serving: 1 1/2 cups (240 calories)

People who eat breakfast—particularly cereals—tend to have healthier body weights and also eat more fiber, which helps you feel fuller for longer. Plus, while dieting often leads to lower levels of important nutrients like iron and magnesium, fortified whole-grain cereals can help fill the gap.

Size-wise tips

—Buy a bowl that tells you your portion sizes. The Measure Up Bowl (shopmeasureup.com, from $14) looks like a regular dish but has discreet measurement lines at 1/2, 1, 1 1/2 and 2 cups.
—Pick a lower-calorie cereal if you like to see a full bowl. (Be sure to check the serving size when you're comparing calorie counts!) Boost the volume of your favorite hearty cereal by mixing it with a low-calorie type like whole-grain puffs (which generally contain 60 to 70 calories per cup).

Don't assume that your cereal bowl corresponds to the serving size on the box. If you're trying to lose weight, measure.

2 of 5

Recommended serving: 1 ounce (170 calories)
Testers' average serving: 1.42 ounces (240 calories)

Although nuts are high in calories and (healthy) monounsaturated fats, studies show that people who eat them regularly tend to be leaner than people who don't. One explanation is that nuts are an especially satisfying snack that results in people consuming fewer calories later.

Size-wise tips

—Count them out. There are about 28 peanuts in a 1-ounce serving. To get more accurate portioning, use a digital kitchen scale like EatSmart's Precision Pro (from $25, amazon.com).
—Shell nuts yourself. A recent study found that when given unshelled nuts, people consumed 41% fewer calories than people offered shelled ones. Why it works: Unshelled nuts look more substantial than shelled ones; it takes longer to eat them; and seeing the empty shells encourages you to eat less.

Calorie difference between the recommended serving and the testers' average serving: about 70. If you do this every day and don't subtract those calories somewhere else, over a year they could add up to 7 pounds.

3 of 5

Red wine


Standard serving: 5 fluid ounces (120 calories)
Testers' average pour: 6.7 fluid ounces (161 calories)
Testers' biggest pour: 10.5 fluid ounces (252 calories)

A moderate amount of alcohol, including antioxidant-rich red wine, may protect your heart; it also may help keep you trim. Last year researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital and the Harvard School of Public Health reported that, compared with nondrinkers, women who consumed small to moderate amounts of alcohol gained less weight and were less likely to become overweight during the nearly 13-year study. It's believed that women may choose wine instead of eating higher-calorie foods, like dessert.

Size-wise tips

—Use smaller glasses. Sipping everything out of big Burgundy glasses can easily lead to portion distortion.
—Raise your glass awareness. Take out your favorite wine glass. Now grab a measuring cup. Fill the cup with 5 fluid ounces of wine and pour it into your glass. Note how high the wine reaches. Do this repeatedly until you have sense of what "one drink" looks like.

Moderate alcohol intake is considered one 5-ounce drink per day for women, two for men. Overpouring on a regular basis may increase your risk for high blood pressure, liver disease, cancer and other problems; it also can add up to a lot of extra calories.

4 of 5

Dark chocolate


Recommended serving: 1.45 ounces (250 calories)
Testers' average serving: 1.45 ounces (250 calories)

Nutrition experts say a small daily treat will keep dieters from feeling deprived. Dark chocolate is a good choice: compared with milk chocolate, it delivers far more heart-healthy flavonoids and it also seems to be more satisfying. In a study, people were given dark or milk chocolate, then ate pizza two hours later. Participants who had dark chocolate consumed less pizza than those who had milk chocolate. They also said they were less interested in fatty, salty and sugary foods.

Size-wise tips

—Buy singly wrapped chocolates, such as Ghirardelli Intense Dark Midnight Reverie 86% Cacao (60 calories per square). Stop at one. If your chocolate of choice comes only in a bar, break off a bite, then wrap the rest up. It doesn't take much to feel fulfilled—in fact, a study found that simply smelling dark chocolate suppresses appetite.
—Move it out of sight. Stashing chocolate out of reach can keep you from overindulging. In a study, office workers ate an average of almost eight candies when chocolates were on their desks, versus three candies when they were a short walk away.

Usually, labels on chocolate bars suggest a serving size in the 200-250 calorie range. But if you're trying to lose weight, take just a taste: one square of dark chocolate, for example. Let it melt slowly on your tongue, savoring every bit of its rich flavor and creamy texture.

5 of 5

Whole-grain pasta


Recommended serving: 1 cup cooked (200 calories)
Testers' average serving: 2 cups cooked (400 calories)
Testers' biggest serving: 3 cups cooked (600 calories)

Research has shown that people who eat more whole grains—as in whole-wheat pasta—are less likely to be overweight. They also tend to have less body fat. Whole grains pack significantly more feel-full fiber—whole-wheat pasta has 6 grams per serving, versus 1 gram in white. Other nutrients in whole grains, such as magnesium, might make our bodies more sensitive to the hormone insulin, subsequently causing us to burn more fat.

Size-wise tips

—Add vegetables. Veggies pump up the volume of your meal and make you feel fuller, says Barbara Rolls, Ph.D., R.D., author of The Volumetrics Eating Plan (Harper). If pasta with vegetables doesn't appeal to you, try pureeing veggies and adding them to your sauce. In a 2011 study, Rolls and her colleagues found that people ate the same amount of pasta topped with cheese sauce containing pureed cauliflower and summer squash as they did pasta with traditional cheese sauce—but consumed significantly fewer calories.
—Select a satisfying shape. Tiny shells—or even spaghetti—pack down into your bowl, while bigger, airier shapes, like ziti, fill it higher, making it look like you're eating more. The illusion of a bigger portion can help you feel more satisfied, says Rolls.

The average American consumes less than one serving of whole grains a day. Not only should most of us be eating more of them, but we should be eliminating refined carbohydrates such as white pastas, rices and breads.

Originally published in the November 1, 2011, issue of Family Circle magazine.

All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.