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Health Information Portion Control

Avoid Super Sizing Your Family

By controlling portion sizes, you and your family can win the battle of the bulge

How many times has this happened to you? You grab a snack out of a vending machine, look at the nutrition label and think, “Not bad, only 140 calories.” It’s only on the second look—usually after you’ve polished off the whole item—that you realize you just consumed two and a half servings. As quick as you can say “fat-free pretzels,” 140 turns into 350 calories. Ouch!

Many of us have a false sense of what a normal-sized portion should be. Often, foods are packaged to make consumers feel they’re getting a better value. Other times, we simply have no sense of proportion. The super-sized bagel that you grabbed at the local coffeehouse, for instance, is not equivalent to just two pieces of toast. In fact, it may be providing you with practically all your grain servings for the day in one sitting.

The good news is that you can easily become more aware of portion sizes using a simple tried-and-true method. Use measuring cups and measuring spoons for about a month to six weeks to determine exact portion sizes. “This will allow you to become familiar with what a half cup of pasta would look like on a plate,” says Kristin Gustashaw, MS, RD, LDN, a clinical dietitian at Rush University Medical Center. “After six weeks or so you won’t have to measure anymore, you’ll just be able to eye it.”

Gustashaw also recommends using the same size glass, plate and bowl when you begin to teach yourself to recognize portion sizes. You may also want to consider using a salad plate instead of a dinner plate for your main plate. “Visual perception is an important part of feeling satisfied,” she says.

“If you want to see good results with measuring portions, take special care measuring meats and starches,” she says. “These have a bigger impact on your calorie intake, compared to non-starchy vegetables and fruits. In fact, if you want to add a little bulk to a meal, add more lettuce and non-starchy vegetables to your salad, but remember to be sparing with the dressing.”

For a 1,600-calorie-a-day diet you would eat:

  • 1½ cups of fruit.
  • 2 cups of vegetables.
  • 3 cups of dairy or dairy equivalent.
  • 5 ounces of grains.
  • 5 ounces of meats or beans.

Most adults should consumer between 1,600 and 2,000 calories per day. If you have children and adolescents, check with your pediatrician and/or your dietitian to find out your child’s daily calorie intake. (Depending on there stage of development, they may need more calories.) If you start to gain or lose more weight than you would like, you’ll need to adjust your calorie intake accordingly.

Some foods are easier to measure, like liquids and cut fruits and vegetables. Things like grains and meats may require using a scale or reading the packaging and dividing things accordingly (for example, divide a 9-ounce package into thirds to get three 3-ounce servings). You can also use a little shorthand:

  • Grains—a 1-ounce serving is about:
    • 1 slice of bread.
    • 1 cup of cereal.
    • ½ cup of cooked rice, cereal or pasta.
  • Meats—3 ounces is about:
    • The size of a deck of cards.
  • Beans:
    • 1½ cups of cooked, dried beans is about equal to 3 ounces of meat (with the benefits of no cholesterol and high fiber).
  • Tofu and other soy products:
    • Read label; you’ll want just enough to get about 21 grams of protein.

While portions are important to follow, remember that some meats can contain different amounts of fat, cholesterol and calories. Make the most heart-healthy choice for your protein source. Choose meats like chicken or fish that are low in calories, while high in protein. Or try a plant-based protein like tofu or beans, which are cholesterol free. “Your choice can make or break a healthy eating plan,” Gustashaw says.

You also need to pay attention to what you drink. Some drinks like soda, juice and whole milk, are high in calories. “Many people are surprised to find that juice has about the same calories as a same sized serving of soda,” says Gustashaw.

While you’ll want to adjust you number of servings depending on your levels of physical activity and lifestyle, “once you’ve learned the portion sizes, you’ve learned them for life,” says Gustashaw.


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  • Looking for a dietitian? Call (312) 942-DIET (3438).

Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush Online are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.

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Nutrition Services at
Rush University Medical Center

Eating well is key to staying well, so Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois, offers many nutrition-related services. These include:

Nutrition and Wellness Center
Our team of nutrition experts can help you achieve your goals, including losing weight, increasing energy, lowering blood cholesterol and living a healthier life.

Nutrition Clinic
Registered dietitians use state-of-the-art methods to analyze nutrient content of food intake, assess baseline caloric needs, measure body fat percentage and help patients comply with diets.

Nutrition Consultation Service
Services include nutritional assessment, enteral and parenteral nutrition therapy and indirect calorimetry. Clinical staff members are experienced in nutritional management of bone marrow transplant, surgical, gastroenterological and critically ill patients of all ages. This service is staffed by a multidisciplinary nutrition support team consisting of registered dietitians and pharmacists. The team is co-directed by a registered dietitian and a physician.

For more information about nutrition services at Rush visit our Food and Nutrition Services home page.

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