If you’ve ever tried to lose weight or maintain a certain number of pounds, chances are you know that the importance of what you eat. It’s generally much better to consume nutrient-dense, relatively low calorie foods – like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meat, fish and poultry – than sugary, fatty dishes that are high in carbohydrates.

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Being careful about what you eat, however, isn’t a license to eat as much as you want. You have to be aware of portion control as well.

“You might know that foods like brown rice, almond butter and dark chocolate are beneficial to your health,” says Amy Gorin, a plant-based registered dietitian and owner of Plant-Based Eats, a collection of curated meal plans, grocery lists and nutrition tip sheets. She’s based in Stamford, Connecticut. “But this is only the case if you eat them in moderation, and in proper portions. That means (eating) an ounce of dark chocolate, not a huge chocolate bar that is meant to last more than one sitting.”

The concept of portion control may seem simple, but there are an array of factors to know in order to properly manage your food intake.

Here are four things you should know about portion control:

  • Beware of portions on food labels.
  • Portion size is important for weight management.
  • Portion sizes matter more for certain foods.
  • Eating proper portions helps your gut microbiome.

Understanding Portion Sizes

1. Beware of portions on food labels.
Portions listed on the nutrition facts section of food labels are often different from the amounts a registered dietitian would recommend, which depend on such factors as an individual’s age, gender and lifestyle.

“This creates confusion for many people,” Gorin says. The serving sizes listed on nutrition facts labels on many food products typically show “the amount of food that people are likely to eat – not the amount that health professionals think you should be eating,” she says. “For example, two-thirds of a cup is the serving size (on containers) for ice cream. I’d recommend only eating a half cup serving in one sitting.”

2. Portion size of all goods is crucial for weight management. Consuming appropriate portions is crucial when it comes to losing or managing weight. This applies even when you’re consuming relatively low-calorie foods. “There’s a huge difference between eating half a cup of rice versus two cups of rice,” Gorin says. “The difference is in fact equal to several hundred calories. This can have a big impact on your weight over time.”

3. Portion size matters more for some foods than others.
While portion size is important for all foods, it’s more important for high-calorie dishes. “Measure higher-calorie foods like nuts, nut butter, oils and meat,” Gorin advises. However, you don’t have to be so stringent for low-calorie foods. You can eyeball such foods as a serving of cauliflower rice, zucchini noodles or steamed broccoli. “These are very low-calorie foods,” she says.

4. Eating proper portions helps your microbiome.
Eating too much or too little of one macronutrient can cause an imbalance in your gut microbiome – a collection of more than 100 trillion microbes that live on and in our body, the majority in our large intestine.

According to Harvard Health Men’s Watch, research suggests a healthy gut microbiome stimulates the body’s immune system and may shield against an array of chronic diseases, including:

For instance, the guide recommends that people age 50 and older consume these food amounts on a daily basis:

  • 2 to 3 cups of vegetables.
  • 1½ to 2 cups of fruits.
  • 5 to 8 ounces of grains.
  • 3 cups of dairy (fat-free or low-fat).
  • 5 to 6½ ounces of protein.
  • 5 to 7 teaspoons of oils.

Whether your goal is to drop a few pounds or maintain a healthy eating regimen, portion control is important. Fortunately, there are specific strategies for consuming the appropriate amounts of food.

5 Portion Control Tips

Here are five portion control tips:

  • Use smaller plates.
  • Slow down your eating speed.
  • Establish a visual.
  • Measure and portion your snacks.
  • Don’t obsess about the little things.

1. Use smaller plates.
Eating with plates that are smaller in diameter can help you maintain good portion control. A smaller plate is about 9 inches in diameter. “Use of a smaller plate helps to limit the amount of food you can put on your plate up front,” says Nicole Hopsecger, a registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition. “Using a smaller volume of food can look more appetizing, as there is less empty space on the plate.”

2. Slow down your eating speed.
It takes your brain about 20 minutes to communicate to your stomach that you’ve eaten enough food, and are full. “Eating too quickly can cause overeating since you may not recognize that you are full and you are not eating slowly enough to enjoy the tastes and textures of your food,” Hopsecger says. “Try timing yourself and see how close to 20 minutes you can get.”

3. Establish a visual.
“Don’t have a food scale or measuring cups? Try comparing food volume to common household items to help you with controlling your portions,” Hopsecger says. For example, a portion of meat, fowl or fish should be about the size of a deck of cards; 1 ounce of cheese is equivalent to the size of a 9-volt battery, and fruit should be about the size of a tennis ball. Salad dressings, oil, butter and nut butters should be compared to the the space from the tip of your thumb to the first joint.

4. Measure and portion your snacks.
Eating snacks – like peanuts, chips or dried fruit – out of a box or bag, tin container or a bag can be a slippery slope, because it’s easy to lose track of how much you’ve eaten. Measure out your snacks onto a small plate or bowl, like a ramekin, Gorin says.

5. Don’t obsess about the little things.
An extra dash of black pepper or an additional eighth of a teaspoon of cinnamon isn’t worth getting upset over when it comes to managing your portions. “You’re literally only talking about a couple of calories,” Gorin says.

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