You’ve probably heard that portion sizes play as much of a role in weight loss as the foods you actually consume. Well, that’s true. Proper portions are guidelines designed to help us eat the right amount of the right stuff and avoid eating too much of anything—healthy or not. They do this by helping to regulate blood sugar, explains Ariane Hundt, a clinical nutrition coach and fitness expert in New York City. The right portion size helps to keep your blood sugar balanced. When we overeat, our blood sugar spikes and it triggers an insulin release that turns on fat storage. When it’s too low (if your portions are too small), it sends your appetite and sugar cravings soaring. This, Hundt explains, makes it hard to turn down those unhealthy, sugar-laden foods.
“When your blood sugar is just right, your energy is balanced, your appetite is in check, and your cravings are controlled. Meaning that you don’t constantly think about when, how, if, and where to have that next cookie,” Hundt says. “All in all, portion control relates to whether you can stay the course on the diet [that] you’ve chosen.”
Sounds ideal, but portion control can be more difficult in practice than it is in theory. After all, it can be confusing to know if your portions are the correct size. Plus, smaller portion sizes could leave you feeling starved. Here’s how portion sizes contribute to weight loss, cravings, and energy levels.
Focus on nourishment, not deprivation.
“Most people approach dieting all wrong,” says Hundt. “They cut out entire food groups, cut down calories severely, and then end up so hungry [that] they can’t stop themselves, or [they] overdo it on the sweets because their cravings are high.”
Simply eating less of everything is not the way to go. Instead, you’ll need to focus on nourishing yourself with plenty of vegetables and lean proteins, and keeping your sugars and starches low. Healthy carbs are totally fine, but make sure that your meal contains lean protein, vegetables, and good fats, too.
“A portion of food that includes protein is a must in order for portion control to work,” says Hundt. “Protein is the most filling nutrient. A portion also needs to include lots of fiber from veggies. That provides the nutrients and proper blood sugar control. And, it should also include a little good fat, such as from olive oil, avocado, or coconut oil.”
Start out by eating frequently.
It’s normal to crave sugars and starches if you’re suddenly eating less of them. In order to prevent feeling deprived, eat the good stuff—those lean proteins and veggies—more often.
“A perfectly balanced meal is one that achieves blood sugar control and, in turn, satiates you fast, gives you good and lasting energy, and prevents cravings later on,” explains Hundt. “The best way to achieve that is to eat every three to four hours in the first week. Then, once the blood sugar is balanced, you can eat whenever you are hungry, which will be at much less frequent intervals.”
Easily eyeball portion size.
No, you don’t need to weigh your food or obsess over the label. Here’s an easy way to eyeball portion size:
“The best blood sugar control is achieved with this approach: protein the size and thickness of your palm—think chicken, turkey burger, fish, lean beef, eggs. Add to that as many veggies as you can eat. They’re low in carbs [so it’s almost] impossible to overdo it,” says Hundt. “Finally, add a little bit of good fat, such as half an avocado or a tablespoon of olive oil over the veggies, or cook the protein in coconut oil.”
After about three or four days of eating this way, you should begin to quell your sugar cravings and more easily say no to sweets and starches. Eat when you’re hungry while continuing to make healthy food choices.
Consider your macros.
Take a look at the macros that you’re taking in. Counting macronutrients—protein, carbs, and fat—can help you understand how your portions affect your hunger, energy, weight loss, and cravings. “Whether portion control works, depends on what type of macros are part of a balanced portion,” says Hundt.
The ideal ratio of macros varies from person to person. Activity level, medical history, body type, and weight loss goals are all factors. A macro diet app or a nutritionist can help you zero in the correct macro target ratio for you. For example, it could be 50 percent carbs, 25 percent fat, and 25 percent protein to start.
Once you get a handle on how much of each macronutrient you’re eating, you can adjust the ratio and your portion size to feel less hungry, more energetic, and to lose weight at your desired rate. Note that counting macros is not necessary for weight loss, and maintaining a perfect macro ratio isn’t always realistic long-term.
When in doubt, focus on protein.
No matter your strategy, the most important thing is that you’re getting plenty of protein and veggies. Make it a habit to reach for them when you’re hungry, instead of starchy foods. “As long as you choose protein and veggies in a meal, it’s unlikely [that] you’ll overeat, so just eat it based on appetite,” says Hundt. “Have you ever overeaten fish? Have you ever binged on broccoli? Exactly.”
Portion sizes can make or break your weight loss efforts. It’s much easier to be mindful of how much you’re eating than incessantly counting calories all day every day. Stay diligent when measuring out your macros and gradually your cravings will dip and your energy will increase.