If you’re a relentlessly healthy eater but find that you still can’t lose weight (or that it’s actually creeping up), it could come down to your portion sizes.
Although every person’s daily caloric intake is individual, based on their personal goals and needs, nutrition experts estimate that average daily consumption at each meal should be broken down as follows: 300 to 400 calories for breakfast, and 500 to 700 calories each for lunch and dinner. Snacks shouldn’t exceed 200 calories.
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But what does that actually look like?
“On a standard-sized plate, when we’re looking at ideal lunch and dinner portions, half the plate should be filled with cruciferous and leafy green vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower and spinach, one-quarter should be for grains, pasta and starchy vegetables, and the other quarter for meats, seafood, fish and legumes,” says Jessica Tong, a Calgary-based registered dietitian.
The problem, she says, is that most people heap on their food (and go for more afterward) and don’t realize exactly how many extra calories they’re taking in. Especially when they’re dining out.
“At a buffet, people think that if they don’t go up and fill their plate three times, they’re not getting their money’s worth. But that’s three dinners you’re eating in one sitting.”
Inevitably, the areas where people often overindulge is grains, starches and pasta. They shouldn’t be avoided (unless you have a condition that precludes you from eating them), but you have to keep the portion sizes in check because these will not only lead to weight gain but they also don’t keep you full for very long.
“If you look at a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, the pasta is the main meal and there’s only a little bit of protein on top,” Tong says. But the protein is more valuable because it will satisfy you for a longer time, preventing you from snacking later on.
The notion of satisfaction also plays into keeping a closer eye on portions, because unhealthy foods can typically be consumed faster.
“I like to think of the concept of volumetrics,” says Carolyn Berry, a registered dietitian in Vancouver. “You can eat a large volume of food, but it’s not necessarily calorie-dense. If you take the plate model [half vegetables, and one-quarter each of starches and protein], your plate is very full, which is visually satisfying. But it also takes time to eat all those vegetables, and when it takes us longer to finish a meal, it can be more satisfying.”
In other words, consider how long it takes you to eat a cheeseburger versus a plate of salmon, rice and broccoli.
The experts break down breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as a few popular snacks, and give a calorie count for some of your favourite meals.
“This tends to be a lighter meal, because most people don’t want to eat something heavy first thing in the morning,” Tong says.
Aim for no more than 400 calories from multiple components, to maximize your nutrient consumption and to ensure you’re satisfied until lunch rolls around.
“Any breakfast in the 100- to 150-calorie range will be too little and you’ll run the risk of letting your hunger build and overeating throughout the latter half of the day,” she says.
An ideal breakfast looks like two slices of sprouted grain bread with half a medium avocado (350 calories), or three-quarters of a cup of plain Greek yogurt, a cup of blueberries and two large boiled eggs (350 calories).
What it doesn’t look like is a bowl of cereal.
“A one-and-a-half cup serving of Raisin Bran is 300 calories, not including milk, and contains 28 grams of sugar. That’s equivalent to seven cubes of sugar,” Tong points out. “Considering your daily intake of sugar is roughly six teaspoons, you would essentially go over your daily limit just with breakfast.”
This is the meal that most people are likely to eat out, which makes it an especially easy one to get wrong. Especially if you don’t realize that not all salads are created equally.
“Restaurant salads are a prime example of how you can make the mistake of consuming more calories than you think,” Berry says. “Sometimes, with the creamy dressings and toppings like cheese and nuts, these dishes can get close to 1,000 calories.”
She advises skipping out on calorie-dense toppings like croutons or bacon bits, asking for an oil and vinegar-based dressing, and have it put on the side so you can dictate how much to pour on.
An ideal lunch looks like a grilled chicken salad with an oil-based dressing (500 calories), or a Mexican salad bowl with beans, salsa, corn and avocado (600 to 700 calories). If you’re going for a sandwich, skip the foot-long with mixed cold cuts, mayonnaise and avocado (1,500 calories) and go for a six-inch sandwich with turkey breast and mustard (200 to 300 calories).
You don’t have to sweat your bread choice too much, either. “Whole grain bread has more nutrients, but it doesn’t always make a huge difference in calories,” Tong says.
A veggie burger sounds like a healthy dinner option, but they can be very high in calories because of the fillers used, like rice and beans. Add in the extra calories from the bun, and any added cheese, condiments or toppings like sauteed mushrooms, and you could be looking at a 1,000-calorie dinner.
The same goes for pasta, which Tong says, is chronically overeaten.
“One serving of pasta is a half-cup cooked or roughly one-quarter cup uncooked — it’s not a large portion. But most people will consume two cups of cooked pasta which amounts to four servings in one sitting.”
She says a good way to eyeball your pasta portion is to aim for roughly the size of your closed fist. To make it more substantial, add vegetables to your sauce and lean protein like seafood or ground turkey.
Regardless of what you’re eating, Tong says you always want to include protein in your meal. If you don’t want to cook, consider picking up a rotisserie chicken and adding the meat to your meals over a couple of days.
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An ideal dinner looks like three ounces of pan-seared salmon, half a cup of brown rice and sauteed spinach (700 calories), or a black bean salad with cheese and vegetables, and a side of unsalted edamame (600 to 700 calories).
Often, it’s not the main meals that are the culprits when it comes to over-consuming calories. Even healthy snacks can pack a wallop. For example, most people don’t realize that a medium-sized avocado can be up to 400 calories.
“Fruit is a great snack, but you can overdo it,” Berry says. “You want to have no more than three servings per day and spread them out throughout the day. If you eat it all at once, you’ll be consuming a lot of sugar in one shot and it could overload your body. That’s especially dangerous for people who are diabetic or pre-diabetic.”
An ideal snack looks like one-quarter cup of nuts or seeds (200 calories), one-and-a-half ounces of cheddar cheese (170 calories), or one-quarter of an avocado with a slice of whole grain bread (150 calories).
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