My grandmother had to move into a retirement home recently, and when we cleaned out her house I inherited a lovely vintage dining set. Despite my focus on eating healthy, body composition and weight training goals, I still love cooking, hosting parties and food. In normalizing my relationship with food, I’ve learned that I can still enjoy those foods I love. I can still have wine, beer or other drinks, just not as often and in massive portions.
This is why I laughed a little inside when I saw the size of the “dinner plates” in the vintage set compared to my every-day plates. My regular dinner plates are 12 inches in diameter, they were a gift from a family member when I moved houses a while back. These vintage plates are only 9 inches in diameter. When I think back to some of the rules of eating at my house growing up, we always had enough food, cooked from scratch, but when I moved out, my portions also increased.
I didn’t know how to cook back then, so I would buy a lot of ready packaged meals and many of them were for 2 people, but I would eat the whole thing. I used to say “The serving size is the container”, which explains how I got up to over 300 lbs at my heaviest. When I added in drinking soda with every meal because I thought water tasted boring and a constant snacking habit, on top of being a movie and gaming nerd who hardly moved, of course I got fat.
What is a Correct Portion Size?
I used to trust everyone else to dictate what the “right” portion size was, if I picked up a meal at a restaurant or fast food place, I assumed they did the job of making sure it was the right portion for me to eat. After all, their job is to prepare a meal for the customer, so I made the easy assumption that it was the correct size meal. The trouble for the various chefs and restaurateurs out there is simple, every customer is different. You can easily calculate your TDEE using a calculator such as this one and you’ll notice what only struck me years into my weight loss journey while out for a family dinner. My mother is 5 ft 2 (158 cm) tall, and was about 110 lbs (50 kg) for most of my childhood. I’m 6 ft 1 (185 cm) tall and was about 250 lbs (113 kg) at the time. Her TDEE was about 1300 calories per day, mine was 2382 calories per day.
For her, portion sizes at restaurants were always too big, to me they were always too small. It is impossible to adapt portion sizes to each individual when making a standard product. This is why most nutritional information has a caveat like “Based on a 2000 calorie a day diet” or something similar. I lacked the ability to intuitively eat the right amount, I was inactive, always chubby before blowing up into human planet size, and always overate by between 200 and 500 calories per day on average. My little brother on the other hand was always very active, always thin, and even struggled to put on enough weight, because when he ate as much as he felt he should be eating, he underate by a few hundred calories a day.
I think there may be people out there who naturally eat just the right amount and have stable weights, but I think more of us fall into either the category that I’m in, or the one that my brother is in, overeater or undereater. Even after years of training myself with portion sizes, it’s very easy for me to default to overeating a few hundred calories every single day. I noticed it when I went on a 2 month diet break towards the end of 2017, where I determined that I was not going to track accurately. I still tracked my calories but I didn’t use my digital scale.
You can see from the table on the left, that based on my tracking, I should have lost 0,65 kg (1,4 lbs) in September and another 1,18 kg (2,6 lbs) in October, but I gained 3,96 kg (8,7 lbs). 1 – 2 kg (2 – 5 lbs) is most likely water and glycogen from increasing carbs, but the rest is actual weight gain.
If 2 kg is fat gain, that means I thought I was in a 250 – 300 calorie deficit every day, but I was actually in a a 300 – 400 calorie daily surplus. This was while tracking calories and food in MyFitnessPal, just not weighing everything on a digital scale, so imagine the damage if I hadn’t tracked at all.
A correct portion size is pretty easy, it is the number of calories you should eat per day according to your TDEE, divided among the number of meals and snacks you eat every day. I like to have a big dinner, never eat breakfast, have a snack before workouts and eat a light lunch, so at the moment I’m eating 1500 calories a day, 450 at lunch, 800 – 1050 at dinner, and set away 250 for my snack on workout days. It’s impossible to decide on this visually, but I can calculate it with my app and trusty digital scale.