PORTION SIZES V CALORIE COUNTING
Don’t want to have to count calories everyday? That’s fine. I’ve created this helpful guide to portion sizes that you can use instead.
However, let me preface this post by saying that, in my experience, everyone would benefit from tracking food intake and counting calories at least for a certain amount of time. You can rely on portion sizes in the beginning but tracking calories is insightful and necessary in many circumstances including:
- figuring out how many calories you are eating
- adjusting your macros (ie. protein, carbs, fats)
- finding your minimal dose for weight loss (ie. ensuring you are eating enough and not driving your metabolism into the ground)
- reverse dieting to rebuild your metabolism
- tracking sugar, iron, calcium and fiber intakes.
In my experience, women only really start to understand what they should be eating when they spend some time tracking calories. Many of my clients continue to track calories after working with me in recognition of how valuable it is to achieving their goals.
With that in mind, whether you count calories or not, it’s important to understand portion sizes so I’m going to set out the basics for you here in this article.
PORTION SIZE GUIDE: PROTEIN
One of the biggest mistakes women make with their nutrition is not eating enough protein. Protein does a lot of things in your body but to really simplify things – think of protein as the macronutrient that will keep you lean and young. Protein is important for muscles, bones, hormones, skin and metabolism.
As we get older our ability to utilize amino acids from protein diminishes and is one of the major contributing factors to sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass as we age). Sarcopenia has devastating consequences to our independence and vitality as older adults so, even if you aren’t trying to lose weight or build muscle now, it’s important to meet your protein requirements for your future health.
Generally 25-30 percent of your daily caloric intake should come from protein.
For someone eating 1600 calories per day that means about 400 calories should come from protein (which is about 100g of protein). This usually equates to about 25 to 30g of protein per meal, depending on how often you eat during the day. If you only eat three meals per day, then you’ll need to be on the higher side of about 30g or more per meal.
To get 25-30g of protein you need to eat one of the following:
- 100g meat or fish
- 5 egg whites (or 2 eggs + 2 whites)
- 1 serving protein powder
- 200g cottage cheese
- 250g firm tofu
The exact amount of protein in a serving will depend on the brand and serving size but this gives you an idea of basic protein sources. Rarely is someone going to eat 200g or more of cottage cheese or tofu so if you are relying on these sources at a main meal, or other vegetarian sources of protein like beans, you need to make sure you get more protein at other times of the day (ie. have a protein shake for a snack during the day if you are having tofu for lunch).
Some women mistakenly think that foods such as yoghurt, nuts and nut butter, and hummus provide them with plenty of protein. However, they actually contain only small amounts of protein compared to carbohydrates (ie. gourmet yoghurts) and fat (nuts and nut butter). (Some plain Greek yoghurt brands have moderate amounts of protein, ie. 10g per serve, and there now are some “high protein” yoghurt and milk options).
If you normally have cereal and milk or toast for breakfast (or you skip breakfast!), you aren’t starting your day with enough protein and it’s likely you are undershooting your total protein intake unless you are having some high protein snacks in between meals.
A simple habit that will help you get and stay lean is to build your meal around protein.
Figure out what protein source you will have with your meal and then you can add carbs and/or fat. Here’s what your plate should look like at any meal or snack (you don’t necessarily have to think “meat and veggies” with this plate. If you are building a snack or shake the same idea applies – protein + carb + a bit of fat).
(You can download a printable version of the Portion Size Plate here or at the end of this article if you’d like to print it out for yourself).
PORTION SIZE GUIDE: CARBOHYDRATES
Women often overeat carbs. Bread, muesli, yoghurt and fruit are all carbs that women tend to overeat – even when they are trying to eat healthy. It’s common for women to eat some muesli with yoghurt and fruit for breakfast and then a sandwich or wrap for lunch. This means they often don’t get much protein until lunch time, and even then the portion is relatively small (ie. a bit of meat in a sandwich). Dinner is often the only time women get a proper serving size of protein.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with eating carbs but overeating them can impact your ability to lose weight. Eating too many carbs instead of protein and fat can also negatively impact your energy, your appearance and your health.
However, it’s equally important not to undereat carbs. Many women turn to low carb diets to lose weight. In the long run low carb diets can be problematic. They can cause poor moods, increased anxiety, cravings, PMS, low energy and motivation – all of which make compliance with a diet and training even harder. Low carb diets can also have consequences like slowed metabolism, thyroid problems, difficulty building muscle and muscle catabolism (loss of muscle which further slows metabolism).
There are many factors that influence how many carbs you should eat, including:
- training goals (ie. to lose weight or build muscle)
- how much fat and muscle you have on your body
- where you store fat on your body
- whether you have a history of dieting
- whether you suffer with PMS and/or anxiety
- thyroid health
- the type of training you do
- your activity level.
In my experience, most women can lose weight eating at least 130-150g of carbs per day. There’s usually no need to go any lower with carbs.
Some women can eat considerably more carbs, particularly if their primary goal isn’t weight loss but rather performance and/or building muscle. You’ve got to figure out what works for you but don’t blame carbs on your inability to lose weight if you haven’t otherwise cleaned up your diet or you tend to indulge on the weekends.
Here’s a list of foods that will give you about:
30g of carbs:
- 150g potatoes or sweet potatoes/kumara
- 120g banana
- ½ cup rice/quinoa/oats (measured after cooked)
- 1 wrap
20g of carbs:
- 2 thick rice cakes
- 2 slices low carb bread
- 1 cup blueberries
- 125g grapes
- 150g gourmet yoghurt
- 1/2 cup cooked chickpeas
For packaged foods, the amount of carbs will depend on the brand but you get the idea! You can also see that I’ve included chickpeas on the list of carbs. Legumes are a vegetarian source of protein but they usually have two times more carbs than protein per serving so they are more carb than protein.
PORTION SIZE GUIDE: FAT
Once you’ve figured out how much protein and carbs to eat, the remainder of your calories will come from fat. Usually fat will account for 25-30 percent of your daily calories. Despite the popularity of high fat Paleo diets, research suggests some women benefit from lower fat diets where the fat content is 25% or less (ie. women struggling with inflammatory conditions or at risk for reproductive cancers).
Fat is calorically dense which means that it’s easy to overdo. Fat has 9 calories per gram as compared to protein and carbs which have 4 calories per gram. That means a serving size of peanut butter is usually a lot smaller than you think. Also, you can’t just go dumping tons of coconut oil in your bliss balls or butter in your coffee because you’ll quickly blow through your calorie budget.
Here are some common, healthy sources of fat in our diet:
- Olive oil
- Coconut oil
- Nuts and seeds
- Butter and nut butters
- Organic full fat dairy
When it comes to serving sizes, you can see how just small servings have quite a lot of calories:
1 tsp oil = 40 calories
15g peanut butter = 90 calories
50g avocado = 80 calories
10 almonds = 70 calories
25g haloumi cheese = 80 calories
1 cup 3%/dark blue top milk = 150 calories
Because fat is so calorically dense, it’s easy to underestimate the amount you are eating and how many calories you are consuming. It’s a good idea to use a food scale if you have a taste for fatty foods like peanut butter. If you aren’t weighing your food, you may be consuming a lot more calories than you think.
PORTION SIZE PLATE
It can help to have a visual reminder of how your plate should look so I’ve created the Female Fitness Portion Size Plate which you can download to keep in your kitchen. Put it on the fridge or somewhere you’ll see it when preparing food.
I’ve also created a “Low Carb” plate if that’s your thing or if you practice carb timing or cycling.
You can get your free downloads here or click the photo below. Once you enter your email you’ll be sent a link to download the Plates and also my free ebook: “The Ultimate Nutrition Guide For Females” which covers calorie counting, portion sizes, supplementing, and meal planning in more depth.
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