Portion control matters, but shouldn’t control your life – here’s our guide to getting your head around how much you should be eating

How much you eat is just as important as what foods you put in your mouth – it’s a delicate balance between eating enough nutritious foods from the main food groups and feeling full and ensuring you aren’t overeating.

Controlling portions doesn’t mean eating tiny or restricted amounts of food or measuring your food precisely down to the number of peas on your plate.

Here, top diet and nutrition experts give us their tips on how to control portion size, measuring food portions – with and without scales – and a list of recommended portion sizes for a healthy, balanced diet.

Why does portion control matter?

"Portion control does and doesn’t matter all at once," says Priya Tew, from Dietitian UK and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association. "It can be a helpful guide for someone to get to know how much is standard but, on the flip side, everyone’s bodies are different and it’s also important to tune in and listen to what your body needs."

"Maybe you’re more active than other people and therefore will need a large portion, maybe you’ve been unwell and need to eat a different amount – we’re all unique."

It’s about “proportions” as well as “portions”

"Thinking about the amount you eat in terms of the proportions of food types on your plate, as well as portion size overall, can help ensure your diet contains a good balance of everything your body needs in the right amounts to stay healthy and reduce your risk of ill health," explains Suzanne Anderegg, a registered nutritionist.

"When you’re thinking about how to make sure your portions are healthy, a great place to start is with the Government’s dietary guidelines in The Eatwell Guide," Suzanne explains. "It gives a good idea of how much of what you eat on the whole should come from each food group and offers some healthy suggestions, too."

"A healthy diet should contain a wide variety of nutritious foods every day to ensure you eat all the nutrients your body needs." 

Here’s a breakdown of what The Eatwell Guide recommends over the period of a day or even a week for a well-balanced and healthy diet:

• At least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables a day (around a third of what you eat).

• Basing meals on starchy food (eg potatoes, bread, rice and pasta). These make up just over a third of the food you eat and wholegrain versions are best.

• Dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks); opting for lower fat and lower sugar options where possible.

• Some pulses, beans, eggs, meat and other proteins, including two portions of fish a week, one of which should be an oily fish. A portion is around 140g cooked weight.

• Choosing unsaturated oils and spreads, eaten in small amounts.

• Drinking six to eight cups/glasses of fluid a day. Water is ideal, but lower fat milk and sugar-free drinks, such as tea and coffee, all count towards this. 

How can you measure portions without a scale?

"Knowing exactly what a portion size is can be especially confusing when many packaged food labels only tell us the number of servings it contains," says Suzanne. "Using a scale or other kitchen items, such as a measuring cup and serving spoon, to measure out your food may be helpful at first to get a better understanding of how much food to prepare and serve on your plate."

"However, it’s important to remember that we all have our own individual nutritional needs. This means that not all family members need to be eating the same portion sizes. The Eatwell Guide provides information on energy requirements for different ages, males and females, and those looking to prioritise weight loss."

A hands on approach may also be helpful. "I like using the hand as a personalised gauge on how to portion control," says Priya. 

As a rough guide, she recommends aiming for the following portion sizes:

• A palm-sized piece for meat and beans
• A hand-sized portion for fish and chicken
• Two cupped handfuls of veggies and salad 
• One cupped handful of dried fruit or nuts
• A thumb tip of oils, fats or nut butters
• Two fingers of cheese
• A fingertip of butter

What are the recommended portion sizes for a healthy lifestyle?

The Eatwell Guide recommends women should aim to eat around 2,000 calories a day and men should eat 2,500 calories a day. This covers both food and drinks. 

Starchy foods should make up just over a third of the food you eat each day. "You should aim for your daily diet to contain three to four portions of healthy, wholegrain varieties of starchy complex carbohydrates that have more fibre, minerals and vitamins," says Suzanne. Wholegrain can also keep you fuller for longer as it’s slowly digested by the body.

"You should also aim to eat more than five portions of fruits and vegetables every day," adds Suzanne. The Eatwell Guide recommends a portion of 80g of any of these: apple, banana, pear, orange or other similar-sized fruit, three heaped tablespoons of vegetables, a dessert bowl of salad, 30g of dried fruit (at mealtimes) or a 150ml glass of fruit juice or smoothie.  

"A healthy diet contains around two to three portions of protein, such as lean poultry, fish, eggs, pulses, legumes, nuts and soya, and includes one portion of oily fish per week," says Suzanne. Aim for at least two portions (around 140g cooked weight) of fish a week and go for lean cuts of meat or lean protein mince to reduce your intake of saturated fat. It can also help to cut the fat or skin off meat and opt for grilling, boiling or poaching over frying. Be mindful of how much red or processed meat you eat (processed meat includes sausages, bacon, cured meats and reformed meat products). Aim for no more than 70g (cooked weight) a day.

If or when you don’t eat meat, pulses such as beans, peas and lentils, and vegetable-based sources of protein such as tofu, bean curd and mycoprotein are all good alternatives.  

"And don’t forget to include two to three healthy portions of dairy or dairy alternatives with calcium to help keep your bones strong," says Suzanne. Seek out lower fat and lower sugar dairy options where possible, or just have smaller amounts of full-fat versions instead. Go for unsweetened, calcium-fortified varieties when it comes to dairy alternatives.

"Lastly, limit your portions of highly processed foods and those containing high amounts of sugar, salt and total fat – such as oils and spreads – to small amounts," says Suzanne. When it comes to oils and spreads, look for ones that contain unsaturated fats as they tend to be healthier (eg, vegetable oil, rapeseed oil and olive oil).

At the end of the day, it’s about balance, but getting clued up on portion sizes and how much you should be eating, means you can make the right food choices for yourself and live your healthiest life possible.