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Portion Control and Weight Loss- How to Get Started

Dr. Schulte shares why portion control and weight loss go hand-in-hand as one of the most evidence-based approaches for long-term weight management.

Portion control and weight loss go hand-in-hand as one of the most evidence-based approaches for long-term weight management. Learn more about the science behind the strategy and my favorite tips for staying consistent!

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Science Strongly Supports Portion Control

Decades of research studies, including my own work, have provided evidence that practicing portion control is one of the single most effective tools for weight loss that lasts a lifetime (O’Neil et al., 2005; Schulte et al., 2020). Portion control is the key to making sure that you are in a calorie deficit, which is biologically required for weight loss. Overall, you should aim for a daily calorie target between 1200-1800, depending on your sex, starting weight, and activity level.

Throughout the process of learning how to practice portion control, you will learn which foods work best for your body to keep you full for hours at a time, combat cravings, and help you stick to your calorie target consistently without feeling deprived. Your first step is to find a method of measuring your food portions that is both accurate and easy to maintain within your routine for the long haul. Let’s take a quick look at the formal recommendations for portion control, as well as the realistic option I encourage my patients to try!

Your Refresher Course in Portion Control

MyPlate Guidelines

The widely recognized model proposed by MyPlate.gov in the United States for how to practice portion control revolves around developing a healthy plate, like this:

This approach encourages people to fill half of their plate with vegetables and fruits, about one-quarter of the plate with lean protein sources, the last quarter of the plate with whole grains, and a small portion of dairy on the side. The strength of this approach is that it prioritizes eating whole foods that can be found in nature and shows how to add in each of the major food groups at every meal. However, it is important to account for many different ways that a meal can look, especially in the modern food environment that is full of processed foods!

A Realistic Take on Portion Control

Meals don’t always look like the MyPlate guidelines, with each category of food neatly separating out on its own section of your plate. Healthy, low-calorie meals can include a combination of food groups, such as a chicken and vegetable stir fry, a nutrient-dense soup, or an egg-white and veggie scramble. In addition, many of the foods in our modern environment are processed and don’t have a place within the MyPlate guidelines (like pizza, chips, or chocolate).

For these reasons, I suggest practicing portion control for weight loss by weighing/measuring foods and recording their calories to ensure that my patients are in a calorie deficit. This approach allows meals and snacks to take on any “appearance” and applies to all foods.

For weight loss, it is best to prioritize having your diet be mostly vegetables and lean proteins, with a moderate amount of whole grains and fruits, and a few treats sprinkled in throughout the week to prevent you from feeling deprived. Measuring your food portions and keeping track of your calorie intake will help you find the balance in your eating plan that helps you lose weight in a way that feels sustainable!

How to Measure Your Food Portions

The most accurate way to measure your food portions at meals and snacks is to use a digital food scale and follow these simple steps:

  1. Before turning the food scale on, put your dishware (plate or bowl) on top.
  2. Turn the food scale on and let it “zero” out with your dishware on top.
  3. Add the food item and measure in grams for the most accurate result.
  4. Log the portion size and food item in a free app like MyFitnessPal.
    1. If you are eating a whole food (protein, fruits, vegetables), type it into MyFitnessPal and adjust the portion size. Remember to account for the preparation method for the most accurate result (e.g., grilled chicken, steamed broccoli, sliced apple).
    2. If the food has a combination of ingredients, either use the “Recipe Builder” tool on MyFitnessPal to log each ingredient individually or type in as many details as you know about the food and select the best match (e.g., ground beef lasagna with red sauce, 100 grams).
    3. If the food has a barcode, you can scan it and enter in the portion size you ate.
  5. Zero out the food scale again with the dishware and the first food item on it and repeat for as many food items as you are enjoying for your meal or snack!

If you don’t have a digital food scale, the next best thing would be to use measuring cups. You can use the standard measuring cups/spoons that are probably in your kitchen already! Just remember to type as many details into MyFitnessPal as possible when you are logging your food (e.g., 1/3 cup of cooked brown rice + 1 tsp olive oil).

Bonus Tips for Portion Control and Weight Loss

Bonus Tip #1: Plan your meals and measure your portion sizes ahead of time. 

  • Instead of having to get your food scale out before every single meal and snack you eat, consider preparing your meals and snacks ahead of time. For example, if you typically have 1/2 cup of steel cut oats and 1 cup berries for breakfast during the workweek, prepare five reusable bags with 1/2 cup of steel cut oats and five 1 cup glass containers with berries. You’re ready to go for the entire workweek!

Bonus Tip #2: Choose foods that are pre-measured with appropriate portion sizes.

  • If you find it overwhelming to measure all of the foods you eat for all meals and snacks, you can select some foods that are already measured. For instance, these 100-calorie pack almonds are a great grab-and-go snack that you don’t have to measure out!

Bonus Tip #3: Ask for support from your loved ones.

  • It can be difficult to take the extra time to measure your food portions when your family is anxiously awaiting dinner to be served!  Plan a time to talk with your family (or others you often eat with) about your goals, and ask them to support you by either allowing you time to measure your food portions or helping to remind you to do this before eating (whichever is more helpful for you!)

Bonus Tip #4: Make your portion sizes larger with the foods you eat!

  • While you will lose weight if you are in a calorie deficit (regardless of the type of food you eat), eating more whole foods will allow you to eat much larger portion sizes to stay fuller for longer and more satisfied. For example, a typical muffin from a coffee shop is around 500 calories and usually will fill you up for about an hour or two before the cravings for more sweets kick in! In contrast, for the same 500 calories, you could enjoy a satisfying breakfast of 4 ounces of cooked ground turkey (265 calories) + 2 eggs (140 calories) + 3 egg whites (50 calories) + 1/2 cup of red peppers (20 calories) + 1/2 cup of red onion (25 calories)! This meal would have a whopping 50 grams of protein, whereas the muffin has just 6 grams of protein. Imagine how much more satisfying the chicken, veggie, and egg scramble would be! The bottom line is to eat whole foods as often as possible.

Portion Control on the Down-Low!

Many of my patients describe wanting a way of practicing portion control at home or at social events that won’t make it obvious that they are working towards weight loss.

Enter portion control dishware. I wrote a detailed post about portion control plates, one of the most popular options among my patients for inconspicuous weight management. For example, this set by  Corelle provide no hints to other people that you are watching what you eat.

In addition to portion control plates, there are beautiful options for portion control bowls by Rachael Ray and The Pioneer Woman. This portion control bowl is a bit more obvious in its purpose but contains multiple measurements, making it the most versatile piece.

For serve ware, I love this set that look like normal serving spoons but actually represent exact portion sizes (e.g., 1/2 cup, 4 ounces). This is the perfect way to practice portion size while enjoying dinner with your family or hosting guests at your home!

Lastly, think about using Tupperware when you prepare your meals and snacks that help you with portion control, such as this set! For more information about meal preparation and healthy meal ideas, check out my post here!

If you find it difficult to stay consistent with practicing portion control, I strongly recommend looking into some of these fun kitchen tools that can help you keep portion control at the forefront of your mind without making it obvious to others that you are focusing on weight management (if you prefer to keep your goals private!).

Dr. Schulte’s Summary:

Portion control is one of the single most important tools for achieving your long-term weight loss goals. The gold-standard way to accurately measure your food portions is to weigh them on a food scale and pay attention to your overall calorie goal. Over time, you will figure out the types of foods that keep you fuller for longer and the calorie target that allows you to lose weight in a way that feels sustainable. If you find it difficult to stay consistent with portion control, I encourage you to check out the many kitchen tools available to help you!

Questions? Drop a comment below or send an email to erica@drericaschulte.com!

References

O’neil, P. M., & Rieder, S. (2005). Utility and validity of the eating behavior inventory in clinical obesity research: a review of the literature. Obesity Reviews6(3), 209-216.

Schulte, E. M., Tuerk, P. W., Wadden, T. A., Garvey, W. T., Weiss, D., Hermayer, K. L., … & O’Neil, P. M. (2020). Changes in weight control behaviors and hedonic hunger in a commercial weight management program adapted for individuals with type 2 diabetes. International Journal of Obesity44(5), 990-998.

Disclaimer: all opinions are my own and are not affiliated with my employers. Please seek medical guidance before pursuing weight loss or making significant changes to the way you eat or your physical activity routine.

2 replies on “Portion Control and Weight Loss- How to Get Started”

Hey there! Your article is so helpful I can lose weight and eat. However, I have to plan my recommended diet by using portion control as you have written in the article. By using this method I can have smart weight loss if that is my goal, but for someone who does cardio exercises can he/she combine with portion control Idea?

Hi Alinafe,

Great question, and you can absolutely combine portion control and cardio exercises! This would actually be a perfect plan for creating a gentle calorie deficit that would allow you to lose weight. I would definitely recommend making sure you’re eating enough protein each day to support your physical activity and muscle recovery!

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