Close Up Of Man Eating Healthy Brazil Nuts?>

Handy Advice About Food Portions

by Andrea Klausner, MS, RD  

Everything “in moderation” is considered sound and practical advice for a healthy life, especially when it comes to diet and weight management. But ask three people to specify what a “moderate” amount of a food—say, cookies or pasta—would be, and you’ll likely get three different answers. That’s because, as a study in the journal Appetite has found, the definition of moderation depends largely on individual preferences: The more you like a particular food, the larger you consider a moderate portion to be. Couple this with difficulty in visualizing official serving sizes (what is a ½ cup or 6 ounces, as listed on food packages?), and it’s no wonder that many people regularly overeat.

But here’s a helping hand: You can use your hands to gauge portion sizes more consistently and perhaps more accurately—no measuring cups, spoons, or scales needed. As reported in the Journal of Nutritional Science, a study from the University of Sydney in Australia tested this “hands-on” approach by having 67 people measure 42 foods and liquids with their finger widths and then using formulas to calculate the volume and weight of the items. This was found to be more precise than visualizing common household measures, at least for liquids and “geometrically shaped” foods. The findings are briefly described by the lead author in this video.

Keep in mind, of course, that hand sizes vary greatly, which affects these measurements. An app may be on the way that would allow you to enter your own hand measurements and your weight to get personalized guidance.

In the meantime, here are some rough estimates as to how average adult hand size stacks up as a measure for some common foods:

  • Fist = 1 cup of vegetables, fruit, or grains, such as a cup of chopped broccoli, peas, corn, rice, pasta, cereal, or oatmeal.
  • Thumb tip (from the joint) = 1 teaspoon of peanut butter, olive oil, or salad dressing.
  • Whole thumb = 1 ounce, such as of cheese.
  • Flat palm = 3 ounces of fish, chicken, or meat. Larger palms represent about 4 to 5 ounces.
  • Cupped hand holds 1 to 2 ounces of nuts.

Another popular way to estimate portion sizes is to use visual cues such as these from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics:

  • Deck of playing cards = 3 ounces of meat, poultry, or fish
  • Baseball = 1 cup pasta
  • Tennis ball = ½ cup fruit
  • 4 dice = 1½ ounces cheese
  • 1 die = 1 teaspoon spread or butter

Also see Portion-Controlled Meals for Weight Loss.