Portion Control for Weight Loss: How to Get Enough Nutrients

Craig Primack, MD, FACP, FAAP, FOMA

Reviewed by Craig Primack, MD, FACP, FAAP, FOMA

Written by Vanessa Gibbs

Published 05/01/2024

If you’re looking into losing weight, you’ve probably come across the term portion control quite a few times by now.

Portion control is exactly what it sounds like — limiting or controlling the amount of food you eat. Specifically, it may involve eating smaller portions to lose weight.

But we’re here to tell you that portion control shouldn’t just be about cutting down. It also needs to involve eating enough nutritious foods.

Read on to learn about portion control for weight loss, tips to help you do it and what recommended portions look like for everyday foods.

A portion is how much food you eat on one occasion. Portion control is when you make sure you’re eating a healthy portion of food — not too much, not too little, juuuust right.

Portion control can be helpful if you’re trying to lose weight since it can help you eat fewer calories, which is a key component of weight loss.

Portion control is important for weight loss, but it can have a few downsides.

When practicing portion control, you need to focus on what you eat, not just how much you eat. Otherwise, you might not get enough nutrients when you cut down your portion sizes.

In short, it’s not all about minimizing your food. Portion control can also help you eat more nutritious foods — for example, if you reduce the amount of carbs on your plate to a healthy portion, you’ll have more room for vegetables.

Plus, it’s not fun to always be measuring out your food and obsessing over serving sizes, which means it may not be the most sustainable method for weight loss.

Read on for tips on controlling your portions in a healthy way.

Here are some ways you can manage your portions.

1. Use a Smaller Plate or Bowl

A healthy portion of food can look tiny when put on a big plate. So, using smaller dishes, plates and bowls is a simple way to make portion control easier.

You can also try special portion control plates. These plates show you how much of your plate should be made up of vegetables, carbohydrates and protein.

Research shows that these plates are effective at helping people regularly eat healthy portion sizes and lose weight.

2. Use a Smaller Serving Spoon

Along the same lines, using a smaller spoon to serve your meal can help you subconsciously serve yourself a smaller portion.

If you add sugar to your coffee, for example, using a smaller spoon could help you reduce how much you add.

3. Use Measuring Cups and Spoons

Not sure how to portion food? You’re not alone. It can be hard to eyeball the right portion size each time — or even know what to aim for.

First up, check the recommended serving size.

What is a serving size? A serving size is what’s listed on the nutrition facts label. It’s the usual portion of a certain type of food.

For example, the food label for oats might say that one serving size is half a cup. You could eat more or less to make a different-sized portion.

Once you know the serving size to aim for, measuring cups, spoons or scales can help you add the right amount of food to your plate. This is especially useful for foods like pasta or rice, which are easy to cook too much of by accident.

You don't need to measure out all of your meals, but measuring serving sizes a few times can help you understand what a healthy portion looks like.

4. Eat More Vegetables and Low-Energy-Dense Foods

Portion control isn’t always about eating less — it’s also about eating more nutritious foods that will keep you full.

Eating more foods with a low energy density — i.e., lower in calories than other foods of the same volume — can help you enjoy a satisfying meal, increase satiety (fullness) and fuel your body with the most nutritious foods.

Low-energy-dense food choices include:

  • Fruits

  • Vegetables

  • Lentils

  • Beans

  • Broth-based soups

Larger portions of foods with low energy densities like these could have the same number of calories as smaller portions of foods with high energy densities.

For example, a hearty lentil curry packed with vegetables might have the same calories as a chocolate chip cookie that isn’t very filling.

That’s why adding more low-energy-dense foods to your meals can naturally lead to healthy eating choices like the right portions.

As a rule of thumb, aim to fill half of your plate with fruits or vegetables. They’re high in fiber, which — among other health benefits — can help you feel fuller.

5. Eat More Protein

Increasing your protein intake can help you feel fuller, which helps you naturally go for healthy portions.

A high-protein diet can suppress the hunger hormone ghrelin and increase appetite-reducing hormones like glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), cholecystokinin (CCK) and peptide tyrosine-tyrosine (PYY) — yes, that’s its real name.

Try adding these lean proteins to your meals:

  • Chicken

  • Turkey

  • Fish

  • Tofu

  • Eggs

  • Nuts

  • Seeds

  • Legumes like lentils, beans and chickpeas

We’ve covered how much protein to eat to lose weight.

6. Eat Healthy Snacks

Who said you have to give up snacking to lose weight? Eating healthy snacks between meals can help you stay on top of your hunger levels, making it easier to control portion sizes at mealtimes.

Healthy snacks include:

  • Nuts

  • Seeds

  • Yogurt

  • Popcorn

  • Dried fruit

  • Kale chips

Bonus points if your snacks include protein and fruit or vegetables. Try apple slices with peanut butter or hummus and carrot sticks, and read our healthy snack guide if you need more ideas.

7. Drink a Glass of Water Before Meals

Drinking a glass of water before you eat can help you eat smaller portions and feel fuller. Sounds too good to be true, right?

A 2021 study backs it up. In the study, 40 participants with type 2 diabetes drank about 34 ounces of water a day before meals. This led to participants eating fewer calories and less fat.

After eight weeks, this added up. They had a lower body mass index (BMI), waist circumference and cholesterol levels, as well as more weight loss, than a control group who didn’t drink water before meals.

A 2022 review of studies found that drinking about 17 ounces of water before meals can improve weight loss by two to five pounds over three months.

Check out our guide to drinking water for weight loss to learn more.

8. Eat More Slowly

Slowing down can help you eat less and feel fuller.

A 2019 study asked 21 participants to eat a meal at a normal or slow rate — we're talking six minutes versus 24 minutes.

The group who ate at the slower speed:

  • Felt fuller

  • Had a more accurate memory of the portion size

  • Had less of the hunger hormone ghrelin

  • Had a 25 percent reduced energy intake from snacks three hours later

Try savoring your meals, taking a sip of water every few bites and enjoying a conversation while eating to slow your roll.

9. Follow the 20-Minute Rule

Even with the best of intentions, it can be easy to overeat by accident if you feel hungry after a meal. But it can take 15 minutes for your brain to realize your stomach is full.

If you finish your meal quickly and still feel hungry, wait about 20 minutes before going for seconds.

This isn’t about restricting yourself, though. It’s just to make sure your brain isn’t playing tricks on you.

You might find that after 20 minutes, your brain has caught up, and you don’t feel hungry anymore.

Prescribed online

Weight loss treatment that puts you first

Instead of whipping out the measuring cups and scales at the dinner table, you can use your hand or everyday objects as visual cues to get a rough idea of healthy food portions for weight loss.

For example:

  • One serving of poultry is the same size as the palm of your hand or a deck of cards

  • One three-ounce serving of fish is the same size as a checkbook

  • One-half cup of ice cream is the same size as a tennis ball

  • One serving of cheese is the same size as a pair of dice

  • One-quarter cup of dried fruit or nuts is the same size as a golf ball

  • One cup of chopped raw veggies is the same size as a baseball

  • One-half cup of cooked rice or pasta is the same size as a cupped hand or tennis ball

Don't be afraid to speak to a healthcare provider or registered dietitian to determine the portions you should aim for.

Portion control can help you lose weight, as it can lead to you eating fewer calories. But if you’re wondering, "How many ounces of food should I eat per meal to lose weight,” let us stop you right there.

Portion control is just as much about eating more nutritious foods as it is about cutting down your food intake.

Here’s what to keep in mind about portion control to lose weight:

  • Portion control involves eating the right amounts of the right foods. It’s not all about cutting down. Eating more protein, vegetables and healthy snacks can make it easier to stick to healthy portions. Even a glass of water before dinner can help.

  • The speed you eat can impact your portion control. Again, not all about cutting down. Eating more slowly and giving yourself time to feel full after a meal can lead to naturally eating healthy portions.

  • There’s more to weight loss than portion control. If you’re starting a weight loss journey, portion control isn’t the be-all and end-all. Remember to eat nutritious foods, incorporate more movement into your daily routine — walking counts! — drink more water and get enough sleep.

If you’re looking to move towards a healthy weight, weight loss medications may help you reach your goals. If they’re suitable for you, they can help with portion control since they reduce your appetite.

Learn more about weight loss treatments and whether they’re right for you.

15 Sources

  1. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020 - 2025. (2020). https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf
  2. Elmaleh-Sachs, A., Schwartz, J. L., Bramante, C. T., Nicklas, J. M., Gudzune, K. A., & Jay, M. (2023). Obesity Management in Adults: A Review. JAMA, 330(20), 2000–2015. https://www.balamand.edu.lb/faculties/FOM/Documents/ObesityManagement.pdf
  3. Kim J. Y. (2021). Optimal Diet Strategies for Weight Loss and Weight Loss Maintenance. Journal of obesity & metabolic syndrome, 30(1), 20–31. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8017325/
  4. Food Portions: Choosing Just Enough for You. (2021). https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/weight-management/just-enough-food-portions
  5. Jia, S. S., Liu, Q., Allman-Farinelli, M., Partridge, S. R., Pratten, A., Yates, L., Stevens, M., & McGill, B. (2022). The Use of Portion Control Plates to Promote Healthy Eating and Diet-Related Outcomes: A Scoping Review. Nutrients, 14(4), 892. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8874720/
  6. Vargas-Alvarez, M. A., Navas-Carretero, S., Palla, L., Martínez, J. A., & Almiron-Roig, E. (2021). Impact of Portion Control Tools on Portion Size Awareness, Choice and Intake: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients, 13(6), 1978. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8229078/
  7. Venema, T. A. G., Kroese, F. M., Verplanken, B., & de Ridder, D. T. D. (2020). The (bitter) sweet taste of nudge effectiveness: The role of habits in a portion size nudge, a proof of concept study. Appetite, 151, 104699. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666319309262
  8. Rolls B. J. (2014). What is the role of portion control in weight management?. International journal of obesity (2005), 38 Suppl 1(Suppl 1), S1–S8. https://www.nature.com/articles/ijo201482
  9. Low-Energy-Dense Foods and Weight Management: Cutting Calories While Controlling Hunger. https://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/nutrition/pdf/r2p_energy_density.pdf
  10. Smethers, A. D., & Rolls, B. J. (2018). Dietary Management of Obesity: Cornerstones of Healthy Eating Patterns. The Medical clinics of North America, 102(1), 107–124. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5726407/
  11. Moon, J., & Koh, G. (2020). Clinical Evidence and Mechanisms of High-Protein Diet-Induced Weight Loss. Journal of obesity & metabolic syndrome, 29(3), 166–173. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7539343/
  12. Sedaghat, G., Montazerifar, F., Keykhaie, M. A., Karajibani, M., Shourestani, S., & Dashipour, A. (2021). Effect of pre-meal water intake on the serum levels of Copeptin, glycemic control, lipid profile and anthropometric indices in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus: a randomized, controlled trial. Journal of diabetes and metabolic disorders, 20(1), 171–177. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8212309/
  13. Perry, D., & Chan, K. (2022). Water for weight loss. Canadian family physician Medecin de famille canadien, 68(7), 519. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9842148/
  14. Hawton, K., Ferriday, D., Rogers, P., Toner, P., Brooks, J., Holly, J., Biernacka, K., Hamilton-Shield, J., & Hinton, E. (2018). Slow Down: Behavioural and Physiological Effects of Reducing Eating Rate. Nutrients, 11(1), 50. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6357517/
  15. Portion Size. (2022). https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000337.htm
Editorial Standards

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references. See a mistake? Let us know at [email protected]!

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.