Expert Nutrition

Changing Portion Size to Balance Your Diet

Does reducing portion size help you to lose weight?

It is not uncommon for people to think that if you’re trying to lose weight, you simply need to eat less food and although this concept is basically the same as reducing portion size, what we hope to show you is while reducing the serving size of some foods is important, the type of foods you are eating is more important.

Would you like to upsize that?!!
A good example of how serving size can influence the total amount of energy consumed is if you were to look at the difference between a standard take away meal from a fast food chain and compare it with the upsized version. For educational purposes we will use meals that you could buy from McDonalds. Not because we wish to discredit the organisation, but purely because McDonalds are a big brand name that most people would recognise. Additionally McDonalds sells their meals in different portion sizes and publicly makes their nutritional information available.

Portion Size French Fries Coke
Small 225 Cal (1070Kj) 101 Cal (428 Kj)
Medium 398 Cal (1540Kj) 148 Cal (612 Kj)
Large 453 Cal (1900Kj) 224 Cal (937 Kj)
*Figures adopted from the Australian McDonalds website 2007.

As can be seen in the table above, if you increase the portion size of the food consumed, you can also significantly increase the amount of energy. For example the difference in energy content between the small fries and the large fries is more than 200 Cals. In the coke example the difference between the small and large portion size is more than double.

When people upsize their meal they tend to do so because they get more value for money. An important point to remember however is that you also get a lot more energy. This is not such a bad thing if you’re relatively active and will burn it off. On the other hand, if you don’t intend to burn it off, where do you think that all that extra energy is going to go? If you’re thinking about upsizing your meal a good question to ask yourself is ”Am I going to burn these extra calories today?” If the answer is “no”, be warned, choosing to upsize your meal, could also result in upsizing your arse!

Should I reduce portion size if I’m trying to lose weight?

Given that the portion size can impact on the total amount of energy consumed, when trying to lose weight it makes sense to be mindful of how much food you are actually eating. Having said this, while cutting back on the portion size of some food items may be beneficial to assisting weight loss, skipping meals all together can be detrimental.

Although there are many diet plans that focus towards reducing portion sizes and ultimately the total volume of food consumed, we believe this can sometimes have a negative psychological impact on people as essentially they feel that they are neglecting themselves of food. When trying to lose weight it is important to remember that the overall goal is to reduce energy input, not to go hungry! Therefore, we try to encourage a more positive approach, where your goal should be to get the balance right.

In this approach you can actually eat more, more of the right foods and more variety. By increasing the portion size of the right foods it is possible to eat a greater volume of food, while consuming less calories. Naturally by increasing the amount of healthy foods consumed, particularly those that help to satisfy your hunger, by default this also helps to reduce the portions of foods which may be detrimental. Win – win!

Balancing Your Diet

A balanced diet is not a fad, it’s been around for many, many years. When it comes to portion sizes, your goal should simply be to get the balance right. Remember the good old food pyramid? It was designed to help people understand what makes up a healthy, balance diet. If your goal is to have a healthy diet, then your portions should reflect what is suggested in the food pyramid. Let’s review.

healthy food pyramid

Healthy Food Pyramid

Although there have been a few variations of the healthy food pyramid, the basic concept has been the same. Your goal should be to include lots of plant-based foods, include a little bit of lean meat and limit the consumption of fats, oils and added sugar.

You will notice that you don’t find chips, chocolate, crisps, cakes etc on the healthy food pyramid. Why do you think that is? Because they don’t fall into the healthy food category. This is not to say we should neglect ourselves from these food items all together, just aim not to include them as part of your regular daily diet, save them for special occasions, or as rewards for positive performance.

Let’s quickly review your diet. It’s a good idea to write the answers to the following questions down so you can identify where you're going wrong.

Your Diet

  • What would you normally have for breakfast?
  • What would you normally have for lunch?
  • What would you normally have for dinner?
  • What foods do you snack on or have for dessert?

How does your diet compare to the healthy food pyramid?

  • Do plant-based foods make up the majority of every meal?
    (Note vegetable oil or olive oil does not class as a plant based food.)
  • How many serves of vegetables do you eat a day?
  • How many serves of fruit?
  • Additionally how many foods do you eat that aren’t represented on the food pyramid?
Incidentally the healthy recommendation for combined fruit and vegetable consumption is to get at least 7 serves a day, how many do you eat?

Why is it that plant-based foods are so heavily recommended? Because of basic nutrition, they help to provide the body with the nutrients it requires to maintain health. Nutrients like, vitamins, minerals, fibre, essential fatty acids etc. Additionally plant-based foods predominately provide energy in the form of carbohydrates, the body’s most ideal source of fuel. Eating a predominately plant-based diet also ensures that we don’t over indulge in calories. This is not to suggest that you become a vegetarian, as meat and dairy products also supply the body with very important nutrients, it’s simply a matter of getting the balance (portion) right.

There are many diet plans out there that suggest you need to cut out carbs, or eat more protein, the truth is that any diet plan that focuses on eating only one particular food group, or eliminating a food group altogether is general not going to be a healthy approach. The healthiest approach is to add variety and balance your portions right.

The healthy food pyramid incidentally was not designed as a weight loss plan, it was created as a tool to help demonstrate what makes up a balance diet, one that would assist in maintaining health and preventing weight gain. Taking this into consideration to improve health (or lose weight) we need to make some modifications.

In regards to weight loss please find our slight variation below.

Weight Loss Pyramid

Modified Weight Loss Pyramid

In this modified version, you will notice that fruits and vegetables now form the base of the pyramid and that the dairy products have been changed to low fat dairy products. Additionally you will also find that cheese has moved to the top of the pyramid to join fats and oils, this is not to say that cheese is unhealthy, but it does contain a lot of unwanted calories. Spreads like butter and margarine would also come into this category where it is recommended that you consume these foods sparingly.

The theory behind these modifications is that we have tried to increase the portion of fibre (through the consumption of fruits, vegetable, legumes beans etc) to help satisfy your hunger and prolong satiety (feeling of fullness), whilst also improving the energy density by reducing the amount of fat. This variation will ultimately reduce the total energy input throughout the day, whilst also helping to satisfy your hunger.

An important point to consider is that the healthy food pyramid was designed to be accompanied by regular physically activity, likewise our modified weight loss pyramid is designed to be accompanied by a structured exercise program. More on exercise later.

Another more popular trend in the weight loss community is to reduce portion size through the use of meal replacements. Currently there is a lot of growing evidence to support the use of meal replacements in assisting weight loss, however, it is important to remember that they are most effective when use in conjunction with a lifestyle education and modification program, such as this free weight loss chapter.

Now that you have a better understanding about the types of foods you should be eating to assist weight loss, let’s turn our attention next towards eating frequency.

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