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The Importance of Food Portion Sizes

By: Meg Russell - Updated: 16 Nov 2010 | comments*Discuss
Healthy Eating Food Low Calorie Food

For a healthy eating lifestyle we need to ensure that we are getting enough of each of the main five food groups; but instead of fixating on exact food portion sizes, and possibly giving up because the whole process is too tedious, we are better off aiming for overall healthy balance in our diet.

We know roughly the calories we need using healthy eating guidelines - some 1940 daily on average for an adult woman and 2550 for a man - with variations according to age, sex, weight and activity levels. To ensure healthy eating we should try to apportion these calories according to the recommended amounts for the main food groups.

The ‘Carbs’

Even when we are eating mainly low calorie food, roughly a third of our diet should be carbohydrates of the kind which provide energy both for physical and mental exertion. These starchy carbohydrates like wholemeal bread, potatoes, cereals, rice, oats and other filling foods are excellent sources of energy and essential nutrients.

Fruit and Vegetables

Another third of our food should come from fruit and vegetables, rich in vitamins and minerals. The ‘five-a-day’ mantra familiar to most of us is a good way to judge if we are getting enough of this food group. Food portion sizes are easy to judge for fruits and vegetables:

  • a large fruit such as a banana or an apple counts as one portion.
  • a handful of grapes or other small fruits, or several strawberries, for example, would be one portion.
  • with vegetables, one portion is equivalent to three heaped tablespoons.
  • a glass of pure fruit juice counts as one portion (drinking more still leaves the portion count as one)

Don’t forget that these values apply to fruits and vegetables whether they are fresh, frozen, canned or dried.


Protein is what builds and repairs our bodies and it, too, contains important vitamins and minerals needed for healthy eating. We need protein in smaller portions, however, equivalent to roughly one-fifth of what we eat each day. It comes from meat, fish, eggs, beans, nuts and in the case of vegetarians from tofu and soya too.

Calorie values vary for different proteins. White fish, for example, has a low calorie count of 30 for 30 grams; different cuts of beef might have twice that and more. Chicken and turkey are fairly low calorie, healthy eating foods; but as with all of them you have to take into account how they are being cooked. Frying, for example, is obviously going to increase the calorie count considerably which is why it is best avoided.

Dairy Foods

We need around 700 mg of calcium a day and this comes, in the main, from calcium-rich dairy foods like milk, cheese and yogurts, including soya milk and other calcium-fortified milks. To get this amount of calcium per day, necessary for good bones and teeth, we should have the equivalent of a pint of milk or two yogurts. With cheese, choose the low fat versions for healthy eating.

Fats And Sugars

Although they should make up the smallest part of our diet, the fats and sugars which are the fifth food group are essential to us. They contain more energy than any other group, but we must make certain distinctions. In general, we should be very wary of saturated fats like cream, margarine and fried food which can contribute to heart disease. Unsaturated fats are needed in small measure to keep our immune systems healthy and even to reduce cholesterol. They are found in vegetable oils and oily fish.

Most of us know the perils of sugary foods; they are bad for our teeth and are loaded with calories, not a good idea in a healthy eating programme. Use them sparingly.

Less Obvious Controls

There are other ways of controlling our food portion sizes which may not be so obvious. For example,towards the end of a meal, try slowing down and waiting ten minutes or so to give your stomach time to recognise that it feels full. Stopping eating before we feel absolutely full is a good way to avoid overeating.

Be aware, too, that it is not your imagination that certain foods are getting bigger. You may have stared in disbelief at some of the huge, plate-sized cakes and muffins now in the coffee shops. They can be worth a massive 500 or 600 calories each. Even as a shared treat they would make a hefty dent in the daily low calorie count. A whole plateful of fruit would total far less and fill us before we were half way through it.

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