Portion sizes explained

I think one of the most commonly misinterpreted parts of UK dietary guidelines is portion sizes. As dietitians we generally take the stance that nothing is off limits assuming the portion and frequency is correct.

Of course, this is in the context of how your health is generally and how active you are. Those in better health and who are more active can generally get away with more in their diet. Whereas those who are in worse health or less active tend to have less margin.

A dialogue has emerged in recent times condemning certain food groups. In fairness, this is usually about carbohydrates despite most medical evidence suggesting otherwise. Often the problem is not individual food groups but rather people over eating them, choosing the wrong types and not being active enough to compensate.

So here’s a quick post showing you what the portions should be. Keep in mind, these recommendations are also on the assumption you meet your physical activity recommendations. This is 30 minutes per day 5 days per week of moderate intensity activity MINIMUM. This is only the starting point. Achieving the bare minimum means you are walking a tight rope with your dietary choices. Therefore, based on this you might need to adjust your portions based on your individual circumstances.

Why have portion size recommendations

Portion size and any dietary guideline has multiple purposes. One is to help people manage their weight and not overeat. Another reason is to help people get all the nutrients they need from food and achieve balance. It also helps people manage medical conditions such as diabetes or kidney problems.

Therefore, dietitians look at a broader picture other than just blood glucose or weight. Obviously these are very important but we want you to aim for a balanced diet that is sustainable long term.

Portion size reference

As a rule we recommended the following portion amounts per day:

Carbohydrate 6 portions per day in Type 2 diabetes (approx 120g carb). Up to 8-10 portions without type 2 diabetes and assuming you are reasonably active.

Protein 3 portions per day (approx 60-90g protein/day) with minimum activity. More if you resistance train and exercise.

Fruit & vegetables 5 portions per day MINIMUM

Dairy 3 portions per day (approx 800-1000mg calcium)

High fat and high sugar food keep to a minimum

You can then add up your portion sizes throughout the day each time you have one portion. It is recommended you aim for a variety of different foods e.g. don’t eat 6 slices of bread a day, mix it up.

Another great resource for this is the British Heart Foundation Document which has even more pictures: https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/support/healthy-living/healthy-eating/healthy-eating-toolkit/food-portions

Portion size pictures

Carbohydrates vegetables and protein

60- 75g of rice uncooked on a side plate = 1 portion:

60 – 75g pasta uncooked on a side plate = 1 portion:

Chips on full dinner plate = 1 portion:

Cereal/Oats 30g Uncooked = 1 portion:

Bread 1 slice = 1 portion:

Vegetables

1 portion of vegetables = 5 tablespoons (including chickpeas, beans, pulses & lentils)

1 tablespoon next to a side plate looks like this (you need 4-5 of these for 1 portion).

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Portion sizes explained

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1 portion of carbohydrate with 1 portion of vegetables after being cooked on full dinner plate:

Ideal full meal distribution on full dinner plate aiming for 1 portion starch, 2 portions vegetables and 1 portion protein. This is a pretty standard protein portion whether fish or meat:

Fruit 2 -3 portions per day

2 small sized fruits such as a satsuma = 1 portion:

1 medium sized fruit = 1 portion:

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Portion sizes explained

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Note banana’s have proportionally higher carbohydrate content

Berries on a side plate = 1 portion:

Grapes on a side plate = 1 portion:

Dairy

Cheese 30g = 1 portion

Credit: https://www.gethealthyuk.com/News/101/handy-guide-to-portion-sizes-never-know-how-much-food-is-too-much#.XQX2C6eZPaY

Milk 200ml = 1 portion:

Yogurt 125g = 1 portion:

Reference of milk and yogurt against a fist:

Summary

This isn’t designed to be a comprehensive list of every food. It is to give you an idea of the portion sizes of the different food groups and how this looks on a typical dinner plate. If a food isn’t listed here compare it against a food from the same food group. For example, a portion from a large fruit is the same size as the above fruits. A bowel of cereal is similar to the oats portion above.

Alternatively check out the British Heart Foundation guidance linked to above. Remember, these recommendations are not diabetes specific.

This is usually a good starting point in terms of food portions sizes. However, it is only a guideline. If you know you need less than this – particularly with the carbohydrates – then eat less and/or replace with other food groups.

Remember to subscribe if you haven’t already for email updates and if you’re interested in further help I also offer consultancy services.

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