Portion sizes explained

How much should we eat of each type of food? Here’s how to put together a healthy, balanced meal.

Portion size is one of the keys to maintaining a healthy weight and giving our body the variety of nutrients it needs to be active, energised and healthy. By making sure we eat a good mix of nutritious foods and limit our intake of foods that are higher in saturated fat, salt and sugar, we give ourselves the best chance of feeling vital and nourished.

However, getting portion sizes right can sometimes be tricky. With serving sizes in restaurants and fast food outlets getting larger and larger, and many store bought foods containing several serves in what might look like a single-serving package, it can be confusing to work out how much we should really be eating each day.

Types of food 

The first thing to understand is how different types of foods are classified, which gives us a basic guideline for what a portion size looks like. For a balanced diet, we should eat a variety of foods from each of the Five Food Groups as categorised in the Australian Dietary Guidelines.

These groups are:

  • Vegetables and legumes
  • Fruit
  • Grain (cereal) foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high cereal fibre varieties
  • Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds and legumes/beans
  • Milk, yoghurt cheese and/or alternatives

Foods high in saturated fats, added salt, added sugars or alcohol are grouped as discretionary choices. These foods have low nutritional value, tending to be low in fibre and important vitamins and minerals, and should be limited to small amounts and special occasions, such as celebrations or social events.

So what does a portion of each of these food types look like? The Australian Dietary Guidelines provides the following examples:

A serve of vegetables

  • ½ a cup of cooked vegetables
  • ½ a cup of legumes or beans
  • 1 cup of leafy salad greens
  • ½ a medium potato (or other starchy vegetable like sweet potato)

A serve of fruit

  • 1 medium piece of fruit like apple, banana, pear
  • 2 small pieces of fruit such as plums, apricots or kiwi fruit
  • 1 cup diced or canned fruit

A serve of grain food

  • 1 slice of bread (40 g)
  • ½ cup cooked rice, pasta, noodles, quinoa or other grain
  • 2/3 cup wheat-based cereal
  • ¼ cup muesli
  • 1 small English muffin

A serve of lean meat, poultry or fish

  • 65 g cooked red meat such as beef, lamb, veal or pork (90-100 g raw)
  • 80 g cooked poultry such as chicken or turkey (100 g raw)
  • 100 g cooked fish fillet (115 g raw)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup cooked legumes or beans
  • 170 g tofu
  • 30 g nuts, seeds, peanut or almond butter

A serve of milk, yogurt, cheese

  • 1 cup milk
  • 40 g of hard cheese (such as cheddar)
  • ½ cup ricotta cheese
  • ¾ cup yoghurt

What does a healthy meal look like?

How many portions of each food group you should be eating each day depends on a number of factors, including your age and your gender. Check out the Australian Government’s recommendations for adults and recommendations for children.

In general, though, there is a simple way to visualise a balanced meal. To serve up a healthy dinner plate, the Australian Dietary Guidelines recommends four simple steps:

  1. Choose a medium-sized plate or bowl
  2. Fill up half the plate with vegetables or salad with a variety of different colours.
  3. Add lean protein foods, such as meat, fish, chicken, or lentils, to make up one quarter of the plate.
  4. For the final quarter, add grains such as rice, pasta or noodles.

Easy portion control tips

  • Measure and weigh your food. Get in the habit of measuring accurately, at least until you know you have a good sense of what different amounts look like.
  • Plan your meals. Have a list and only buy what you need.
  • Learn to estimate well. Think of some visuals that makes sense to you to help estimate portion sizes. For example, a serve of lean meat is about the size of a deck of cards, and a serve of cereal is about the size of a tennis ball.
  • Use smaller plates.
  • Eat your veggies first. Fill up on your greens while you’re hungry to avoid overeating grains and higher-calorie foods.
  • Pre-portion your snacks. Divide crackers, chips, pretzels, nuts and other snacks into small containers or plastic bags – it’s easy to eat too much when we’re mindlessly munching straight from the package!
  • Don’t skip meals, If you let yourself get too hungry, you’re more likely to eat too much to make up for it later on!
  • Eat mindfully. Pay attention to your food and enjoy each mouthful – try not to eat in front of the TV or while you’re working.

Recommended reading - Issue Twelve Winter 2015

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