How to Control Food Portions

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Everything “in moderation” is considered sound and practical advice for a healthy life, especially when it comes to diet and weight management. And it is especially good advice to keep in mind during the holidays. But ask three people to specify what a “moderate” amount of a food-say, cookies, pasta, or cheese-is, and you’re likely to get three different answers.

That’s because, as a study in the journal Appetite has found, the definition of “moderation” depends largely on individual preferences: The more a person likes a particular food, the larger that person considers a moderate portion to be. Couple this with difficulty in visualizing official serving sizes (what is cup or 6 ounces, as listed on food packages?), and it’s no wonder that many people regularly overeat.

But here’s a helping hand: You can use your hands to gauge portion sizes more consistently and, perhaps, more accurately-no measuring cups, measuring spoons, or scales needed. As reported in the Journal of Nutritional Science, a study from the University of Sydney in Australia tested this “hands-on” approach by having 67 people measure 42 foods and liquids with their finger widths and then use formulas to calculate the volume and weight of the items. This was found to be more precise than visualizing common household measures, at least for liquids and “geometrically shaped” foods.

Keep in mind that hand size-which of course affects these measurements-varies greatly from person to person. An app may be on the way that would allow you to enter your own hand measurements and your weight to get personalized guidance.

In the meantime, here are some rough estimates regarding how the hand size of an average adult stacks up as a measuring tool for various common foods:

  • Fist = 1 cup of vegetables, fruit, or grains (e.g., chopped broccoli, peas, corn, rice, pasta, cereal, or oatmeal).
  • Thumb tip (from the joint) = 1 teaspoon of peanut butter, olive oil, or salad dressing.
  • Whole thumb = 1 ounce of food such as cheese.
  • Flat palm = 3 ounces of fish, chicken, or meat. Larger palms represent about 4 to 5 ounces.
  • Cupped hand: holds 1 to 2 ounces of nuts.

Another popular method of estimating portion sizes is to use visual cues such as the ones that follow from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics:

  • Deck of playing cards = 3 ounces of meat, poultry, or fish.
  • Baseball = 1 cup of pasta.
  • Tennis ball = cup of fruit.
  • 4 dice = 1 ounces of cheese.
  • 1 die = 1 teaspoon of butter or other spread.