Runner’s Plate: Portions Matter, Tricks to Recognizing Portion Size

HE_apple-tennis-ball-serving-size_s4x3_lgWhen trying to manage weight, choosing healthful foods that are both low calorie, and full of nutrients is a large part of the equation. However, it is possible to eat too much healthy food. Yes you can eat too much fruit. Yes it is possible to gain weight, or stunt weight loss even if everything you eat is inherently good for you.  Portion sizes matter.

Research has shown that we are bad at estimating portion sizes, and tend to underestimate a portion size by up to 2 or 3 times. Our food environment makes it especially difficult for us– restaurant portion sizes are often 2-4 times the appropriate amount, plate sizes are growing, and we eat with lots of distractions (TV, computer, phones, etc), which can make it difficult to listen to our internal hunger and fullness cues. A bagel 30 years ago was 3 inches; now the average bagel size is 6 inches in diameter.

Eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re done is often easier said than done. This can be especially hard for runners when exercise level is constantly changing with your training schedule.

Knowing your calorie needs is the first step to knowing how much you need to eat. Once you know how much you need to eat to lose, maintain, or gain weight, learn what appropriate portion sizes are for different groups of foods and roughly how many calories these foods contain.

Here are a few tricks to recognizing an appropriate portion size:

  • 3 ounces lean meat/poultry =  iPhone or deck of cards
  • 3 ounces fish = checkbook
  • 1 cup fruit or a medium piece of fruit = tennis ball
  • 1 ounce of cheese = matchbox or 2 dice
  • 1 ounce of nuts = altoid box
  • ½ cup uncooked pasta, rice, or other grain = light bulb
  • 2 tbsp peanut butter  or hummus = golf ball
  • 1 cup cooked vegetables = baseball
  • 1 bagel = 6 ounce tuna fish can

I recommend measuring out your portions for a few days so you can see what a portion size looks like.  It will likely be pretty eye opening, and can make a significant difference in your ability to meet your weight goals.

Calorie dense foods that provide health benefits are some of the biggest culprits in hindering weight loss or maintenance efforts. Here are a few to watch out for:

  • Nuts, seeds, and nut butter (2 tbsp peanut butter = ~180 calories)
  • Olive and canola oil (1 tbsp = 120 calories)
  • Freshly made juice – calories depends on fruit  to vegetable ratio, but be mindful of how much you’re drinking and what you’re putting in it!
  • Smoothies (same as above with the juice – know what you’re putting in it)

Eating off of smaller plates, eating more slowly, and waiting 15-20 minutes after you eat to go back for seconds (only if you’re still truly hungry!), can also help you manage your portion sizes.

What do you do to help you manage portions?  Do you follow portion control?  What benefits do you see from portion control?


(Sarah is a registered dietitian and holds a Masters of Science in Nutrition Communication. She is a certified spin instructor, a triathlete, and an avid runner who regularly participates in road races—her favorite distance being the half marathon. Follow her on Twitter @SpinnerSarah and at her personal blog Food and Fitness Friend

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