Portion control is an effective practice when performed habitually to manage weight and regulate caloric consumption. Fitness professionals commonly recommend this behavior change to their clients. However, learning to recognize the proper portion size can be tricky as the human eye tends to distort the perception. Consequently, a client’s perception is often not reflective of reality. Here’s how you can help educate your fitness clients when it comes to portion perception and control.

Teaching the Vocabulary

When it comes to food and nutrition, there are two distinct phrases our clients need to be able to define: portion size and serving size. Clients often use these interchangeably, however, they are uniquely different. Portion size is the amount of food a person consumes (or is served) during a meal or snack. A serving size, in contrast, is a measured amount of food (or a drink) (NIH, 2013).

There are generally accepted serving sizes for all foods and fluids. These serving sizes are listed on the nutrition facts panel of all packaged foods for easy reference. It’s important for fit pros to teach their clients what a single serving of a product is as well what that serving size actually looks like. For example, ½ cup of pasta is a serving (in most cases), but clients may serve themselves two or three times that amount. Consequently, the total caloric intake is inflated beyond what is contained within a single serving.

The key here is helping clients understand the differences between the two in order to effectively manage their individual portions.

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Portion Distortion

Portion distortion refers to how the portions of foods available or served have changed over the years. In short, portions of foods have become super-sized, followed by a corresponding expansion of waistlines. For example, twenty years ago a bagel was 3 inches in diameter; now they are generally twice that size – thus twice the calories (an extra 210) (NIH, 2013). This may not be an issue for someone who is on a high caloric diet, but that’s not the case for the majority of our clients.

Why Portion Control is Hard

First, portion control isn’t an inherent practice for most. People don’t generally think to measure their food in terms of cups or ounces. Many just simply fill the plate or bowl and, depending on the size of the dishware used, there could be three or four servings included in what is served.

Second, visualizing what 1 cup or 2 tablespoons looks like, for example, isn’t a skill the human eye or brain possesses naturally. We have to practice by accurately measuring servings of food.

Third, dishware isn’t portion controlled. The average plate size is around 12 inches (instead of a conservative 10). This allows for the serving of greater portions.

Further, people have a tendency to eat mindlessly and snack when bored, stressed, experiencing emotional upheaval, or eat on-the-run or while performing other tasks. This all impacts how much (and what!) is consumed.

Being Mindful of the Distortion

As fitness professionals and clients, we can do little to control the distorted and inflated portions available to us in grocery stores or restaurants (or even what we serve ourselves), but we can educate our clients about these concepts and how to take a more mindful approach to food and nutrition.

Here are some ideas that will help your clients avoid portion pitfalls.

  • Encourage, at least initially, measuring servings of food so clients can familiarize themselves with what accurate servings look like.
  • Encourage clients to invest in a digital scale to weigh food when appropriate.
  • Assist clients in exploring pre-measured containers to use when “on the go” or at work.
  • Teach clients how to use their hands to visualize a serving of various food items. Alternatively, you can help clients relate portion sizes to everyday items. For example, a serving of rice fits well into a cupcake wrapper. Or a serving of lean protein is about the size of a deck of cards.

Once clients develop a solid understanding of servings, portions, and how to more effectively control caloric intake, they will be well on their way to achieving their goals.

Erin Nitschke

Dr. Erin Nitschke, NFPT-CPT, NSCA-CPT, ACE Health Coach, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Therapeutic Exercise Specialist, and Pn1 is a health and human performance college professor, fitness blogger, mother, and passionate fitness professional. She has over 15 years of experience in the fitness industry and college instruction. Erin believes in the power of a holistic approach to healthy living. She loves encouraging her clients and students to develop body harmony by teaching focused skill development and lifestyle balance. Erin is also the Director of Educational Partnerships & Programs for the NFPT. Erin is an editorial author for ACE, IDEA, The Sheridan Press, and the Casper Star Tribune. Visit her personal blog at belivestaywell.com