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If you’re trying to lose weight, perform better, gain muscle or maintain your weight and not succeeding you’re probably not paying enough attention to how much food you’re actually eating or you’re just guessing, and that’s just not going to cut it.
Most people tend to either greatly over or underestimate how much food they actually eat or have on their plates. To be more successful, I highly recommend you learn how to portion and measure how much food you’re actually eating. Eating vegetables, whole foods, and eating slowly and mindfully is great but when you combine that with measuring and portioning your foods, you’ve got magic.
In Part 3 of the Basic As F*CK Nutrition Eating Habits series, I’m going to teach you several ways to measure and portion how much food you eat so you can gain more control over of your food intake and be more successful with your nutrition plan.
Quantity matters, folks
Any diet for fat loss or muscle gain works based on the principle of energy balance. Energy balance is represented as:
(Energy from the quantity of food & drink we consume) - (Energy we expend) = Changes in Body Mass
If we have less energy coming in than what we expend, we’ll lose mass over time. If you have more energy coming in than what we expend, we’ll gain mass over time. Match energy coming in with what you expend and you’ll maintain.
We live in a world governed by the laws of physics and despite what some may believe our bodies aren’t exempt. Physical law dictates that how much energy we get from the quantity of food and drink you consume absolutely matters when it comes to weight loss or weight gain. Because of this, it’s crucial that you control and know the quantity of food you consume if you want to influence your weight and body composition.
What’s the best way to measure and portion?
There is no “best” way to measure your foods. It depends heavily on what you’re ready, willing and able to use consistently. It also depends on your goals. Some methods are more precise and accurate than others and the potential for success and speed of obtaining results can be different depending on the method you use.
We tend to use precision and accuracy interchangeably but they are two different things and it’s important to understand the difference when we talk about measuring food.
Precision refers to how repeatable and consistent the measurement of the portion will be. If I weigh 100 grams of apple, I can always put enough apple on the scale to get 100 grams worth of apple.
Accuracy refers to how close to the true value the measurement is. Do I know for sure if I have exactly 100 grams of apple? With some methods, you can’t be as confident in that.
For nutrition, precision and being able to measure the same amount of food each time is the most important factor because it allows us to more confidently make adjustments to our food intake.
More precise methods of measuring have the potential to help you eat more consistent and known quantities of food each day which can help you more easily determine if you need to make a change. However, more precise methods are often less convenient as a tradeoff. Ultimately, you’ll need to find what works for you and what you can do consistently.
Methods to measure and portion food
Digital Food Scale
Pros: Can easily measure any and all foods and liquids. Most nutrition labels use weight.
Cons: Not very portable. Can take more time to use.
A food scale is both highly precise and accurate meaning you can be damn confident in how much food you’re eating if you use the tool consistently. In my opinion, everyone interested in improving their nutrition should have a food scale in their kitchen.
Weighing the food you’re eating and using the nutrition data will give you incredible insight on how much you’re eating and what a serving actually is. I’ve had a lot of clients have their mind blown when they realize how much food they were actually eating. Plus, once you see what a serving of food looks like, you have a much better shot of estimating portions using other non-scale methods.
More than likely you won’t want to take a food scale with you everywhere you go and it’ll stay in the kitchen. If you do decide to bring a scale to social events, just be prepared to get a few looks and answer some questions. FYI, I’ve been that guy with the food scale at a restaurant! If your goals are that important to you, screw what other people think and do you! Also, using a scale can take some time so if you’re a person on-the-go, you’ll likely need to pre-weigh and portion foods before you need them.
Digital food scales vary in price and quality. Most are battery operated, but you can get one with an AC adapter if you don’t want to replace the batteries regularly.
Measuring Cups and Spoons
Pros: Easy and quick to use. Very cheap. Good for liquids.
Cons: Not great for measuring all foods. Only some nutrition data are listed in cups and spoons. Not portable.
Measuring cups are only somewhat precise but cheap and easy to use. Getting a repeatable amount depends heavily on the user and the food you’re measuring. When using measuring cups, try to level the top using a knife to scrape off the excess and overfill to make sure you’re more precise.
Keep in mind only some nutrition data is listed in terms of volume so you may not be able to successfully log or track your intake as accurately. Measuring cups and spoons are best used for liquids, cooked/uncooked grains like rice, flours, oats, cereals, oils, nut butters or liquid based foods like soups, stews, and etc. Measuring cups aren’t as useful for bulky, solid foods because the volume of the food can change depending on how the food is prepared. For example, more diced strawberries can fit into a 1 cup measuring cup than whole strawberries. Just be sure to pay attention to how the food is prepared and be consistent on how you use the cups or spoons.
Pros: Free and can be used anywhere and anytime.
Cons: Not entirely possible to use nutrition data. Liquid foods and complicated dishes aren’t really easy to measure.
When you can’t use a scale or cups, I recommend using your hands to estimate and measure portion sizes. Your hands are proportionate to your body and stay the same size, they are 100% free, and you can use this method anytime and anyplace.
Here’s the breakdown for the hand measurement serving sizes:
For meats and proteins like greek yogurt, eggs, cottage cheese:
1 serving = palm of your hand. This is roughly about 3-4 ounces.
For veggies and #greenshit:
1 serving = the size of your fist. This is about 1 cup.
For carbs like fruit, starches, cooked grains, baked goods, and cooked beans:
1 serving = 1 open cupped hand. This is about 1 cup.
1 serving = 1 thumb. This is about 1 tablespoon of nut butter or about 1 ounce of solid fats like cheese. For nuts, 1 thumb is about 1/2 oz.
1 serving of liquid fats = 1 tip of thumb. This is about 1 teaspoon. Use the tip of thumb for liquid fats like cooking oils, dressings and butter.
There’s definitely more room for error, but this method can still work well because if you need to make a change, you can still adjust the serving sizes. For example if you’ve been eating 1 open hand of rice at your meals, and haven’t been losing weight, you could easily adjust your food intake by eating 1/2 a cupped hand.
Note with the hand measurements, foods won’t always match exactly. Just getting close enough will still work. The hand measurement method will work best with simple foods and meals. Keep your plates basic with meat, veggies, starch, fats on their own instead of something complex—especially while you’re learning.
Portioned Meal Containers
Pros: Easy. Containers can hold most foods. Meals can become portable.
Cons: Usually not possible to use nutrition data unless you weigh or use cups also.
Using sectioned meal containers can work pretty well as long as you pack the sections of containers to consistent levels. You’ll still run into the same problem with containers as you do measuring cups. Depending on how the food is prepped, you can fit more within the sections. You can likely fit more chicken in a section if it’s shredded versus a whole chicken breast.
If you don’t weigh or measure the food, you also won’t be able to use food or nutrition labels to determine how much calories or macros you have. So if you’re counting macros or calories, I would use cups or the food scale. On the plus side, meals become portable. You can take the meals with you which means your more likely to eat the food you prepared. This will usually better than eating food you didn’t prepare or portion.
There are lots of options for containers. BPA-free plastic containers are light, cheap and portable but don't last long. Plastic containers are also questionable in terms of hormonal health due to the chemicals they contain. Glass containers are sturdy but heavy to transport. Stainless steel bento boxes are a good tradeoff, but also pricey.
What about Eyeballing?
Eyeballing is inaccurate and not usually precise. Eyeballing can work as a last resort once you’ve learned what portions look like through actually weighing or measuring your food. Therefore, I would only suggest eyeballing once you’ve practiced measuring using a scale, cups, or your hands. Also, I would only suggest eyeballing when you have a good handle on your eating habits or you’re trying to maintain your weight and can afford to be more relaxed with the quantity.
I wouldn’t recommend eyeballing if you have goals on a tight timeline or you struggle with nutrition. Use the hand measurements, the food scale or cups instead.
Portioning Tips and Tricks:
Keep your meals simple while your learn how to measure. Measuring a plate of steak, potatoes, and green beans all separated will be easier to measure
Use a scale or measuring cups to measure high calorie foods like fatty meats, oils, nuts, nut butters, dressings, and high-sugar foods.
Estimate low calorie foods like vegetables using the hand method to save you time.
Measure any snack type food and instead of eating straight out of the bag, always portion or measure out these foods.
As a species we’re not good at recalling what we ate from memory. Get into the habit of snapping a picture of the meal so you can remember what you actually had on the scale or on your plate. Plus you can put it on Instagram and tag me in the photo 😁
Your Action Step
Figure out what method of measuring you are going to use. Remember, what you decide to use will largely depend on what you’re ready, willing and able to do and your goals.
If you’re a total newbie, I would suggest starting with the hand measurements.
If you’re counting macros, you will definitely want to use the food scale and measuring cups.
If you have a really strict timeline or lofty goals, I suggest starting with a food scale.
Regardless of where you start, consistency is the most important factor. Use the method that you can do consistently on a daily basis with most of your meals and foods.
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