Nutrition

Portion Control: Never Count a Calorie Again!

Megan Dahlman
March 15, 2022

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Portion Control: Never Count a Calorie Again!

When it comes to nutrition problems, most people would admit that they probably eat too much. The quality of the food they’re eating may be an issue, but the bigger issue is most likely the quantitiy of the food that they're eating. I’ve seen it many times, a client that is always choosing the right foods (“I’m eating my protein and produce all the time and rarely cheating!”), yet still has a hard time seeing their body change. The problem is typically their portion sizes.

The flipside of this is very true, as well. Not eating enough. Many women with an ectomorph body type will run into this issue. Some will have a hard time gaining and maintaining muscle mass because they simply aren’t consuming enough of the right foods. Their bodies are starving for nutrition and are running on empty, or survival mode. Not good.

What’s the deal? Should you start counting your calories? This is the most popular solution. The diet feels out of control, so you say “I need to start counting my calories”. Pull out your nifty food log apps, plug in all your calories, scour nutrition fact labels, sell your soul to your number totals for two weeks and then bag out because it’s ridiculously tedious. Sound familiar? Don’t lie, you’ve probably done this.  

However, there are some serious problems with calorie counting. The macronutrient and calorie values on labels are mere approximations. Not every single food you consume has been measured in a lab. There are ways that scientists can guess the values, but the results can vary alot. And the problem is not just whether or not a food has been accurately measured. Here are some more factors that can affect the calories (or the energy) of your food:

  • Old data: Some of the data on foods are out of date or inaccurate
  • Analytical methods are imprecise: The way foods are currently being tested does not always provide reliable results
  • Resistant starches/fibers: Labs may measure the energy of certain nutrients that our bodies are simply resistant to and do not get energy from, like certain starches and fibers
  • Product variety: Whether a food is natural or processed will change a food’s exact contents
  • Soil and growing conditions: Produce grown in nutrient-rich soil will have a different nutritional value than produce grown in depleted soil
  • Ripeness at time of harvest: Produce picked at the peak of the growing season will have a different nutritional quality than that picked out of season
  • The parent animal’s diet: Nutrients found in milk, meat and eggs vary based on what the animal ate
  • How long the food has been stored: Produce harvested this morning will have a different nutrient count than produce harvested three weeks ago
  • How the food is prepared: Eating raw food will have a different nutritional quality than food that has been processed and cooked


So with all of these factors considered, the error of margin for calorie and nutrient counts is +/- 25%. That’s huge! If you're counting calories, the goal is not to get within 25% of your target, but to nail it on the head. Because of all the variables, the likelihood of this happening is pretty slim. Imagine if you’re always 25% over your calorie goal. You may never reach your end goal.

At the end of the day, the reason for all the calorie counting is to control how much you ingest. There is a much better way than all the tedious counting.

Let Your Hand Be Your Guide! 

The best way to go about controlling your portions is to match up your food amounts with the size of your own hand. Why is this awesome? No counting, just a quick glance at your hand. No need to look up food facts, just get to know the type of food that you’re eating. Your hand will always be with you. And your hand is a direct reflection of the size of YOUR own body. Someone who is 6’ 1” will have a different hand size than someone who is 5’ 1”, so your portions will be appropriate for what your body needs.

Here’s how it works:

Protein.
For proteins, women should have one palm-sized amount. Be sure to consider the thickness and the diameter of your palm. So choose amounts of chicken, beef, fish, etc. to match the size of your palm. Greek yogurt and cottage cheese is a little trickier to measure against your palm, even though it’s considered protein. Women should choose one fist-sized amount. For eggs, this approximates to two to four whole eggs or ¼ cup egg whites.


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One palm-sized amount of lean meat.
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One fist-sized amount of Greek yogurt or cottage cheese.
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Two or three whole eggs.

Produce. For produce, women should choose one fist-sized amount of chopped veggies or fruit, or one large handful of leafy vegetables (picture dunking your hand into a bowl of spinach and grabbing a huge handful). If it’s a whole piece of fruit, choose one piece (one banana or one apple). Remember, this tells you how many servings you’re having. For vegetables you can certainly have more than one fist-sized amount in a meal. The more the merrier with veggies. You may actually have three or four servings in a single meal (a salad with one handful of leafy greens and two fistfuls of chopped vegetables would be three total servings...great!). Avocadoes are unique, since they are both produce and a healthy fat. I recommend half of one small avocado.

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One cupped handful chopped berries.
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One fist-sized portion of chopped vegetables.
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One large handful of leafy greens.
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One full piece of medium-sized fruit.
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One half of a medium avocado.

Whole Grains & Legumes. When it comes to pasta, oats, quinoa, other whole grains and beans, women should stick with one cupped handful of COOKED grains or one piece of whole grain bread. Keep in mind, these types of starchy carbs tend to be the culprit for many weight problems. You certainly do not need to eat grains with every meal, but when you do, stick with these portion sizes.

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One cupped handful grains.
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One cupped handful beans and other legumes.
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One slice of whole grain bread.

Healthy fats. Women should eat one thumb-sized amount of healthy fats like olive oil, flax oil, walnut oil, mixed raw nuts, seeds, butter, coconut oil, and any cheeses. Of course, oil is hard to match up to your thumb, but for most women it’s somewhere between one and two tablespoons depending on the size of your thumb.

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One thumb-sized amount of seeds.
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One thumb-sized amount of nuts.
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One thumb-sized amount of oils.

Play With It.

These portion sizes are a really great place to start. They may need some tweaking as you start to learn your body. These amounts work really well for those who eat 4 meals per day. If you eat fewer meals, you should eat slightly more than these amounts. If you eat more than 4 meals, you should eat slightly less than these amounts. This shows you how your food portions will start to even out.

Also, your body type can play a role in how you manipulate these portion sizes. If you’re an endomorph, you should limit your grains to one or less cupped handfuls per day and double your fats to two thumb-sized amounts with each meal. If you’re an ectomorph, you can have one cupped handful of grains with every meal and fewer than the thumb-sized amount of fat. For a mesomorph, you’ll fall very closely to the above guidelines.

The most important thing with controlling your portions is falling into a consistent rhythm. You won’t know if it’s working if you use your hand for all your meals one day, then just wing it the next. But fortunately, letting your hand be your guide is incredibly easy. No counting, no ingredient research, no recording, no number obsession.

So breathe a sigh of relief, put away your calorie counters and raise your hand! Believe me, it works.

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Trainer, nutrition coach, and Christian mom — in a culture that’s obsessed with “gym-selfies” and a number on the scale, I’m passionate about helping moms discover what it feels like to actually love their bodies and thrive in them.
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