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How you can eat more and still lose weight

Picture of vegetarian salad

Those extra mouthfuls of every meal, snack and drink soon add up. The result? Weight creep you didn’t see coming. HFG helps you size your bites right.

Old habits can be hard to break and many of us still finish everything on our plate, just as we were told to do as children. The problem with this is that standard dinner plate sizes have become much larger over the decades, and the portions we’re serving ourselves (and being served) have increased. Supersizing isn’t just an American phenomenon either. International experts are now viewing ‘portion creep’ as a main driver of health problems.

Learning about healthy portions isn’t just a handy weight-loss tool. It’s also a simple way to ensure you’re eating a wide variety of foods with the right balance of nutrients for overall good health. This is a complex task that is dependent on your body type, life stage and individual need. While we can’t always achieve this balance perfectly, a good place to start is knowing what and how much to put on our plates at home.

Finding the right balance

You may know what a healthy meal should look like, but you just can’t make it happen. The ‘perfect plate’ model used by nutrition experts helps us understand portion sizes, and aims for the right proportions of each food group in every meal.
The premise of this model is that a quarter of your plate is filled with high-fibre, low-GI carbs. Another quarter is made up of lean protein, and the remaining half of your plate is filled with a mixture of colourful vegetables. This is easy to envisage when cooking classic meat-and-three-veg dishes, but can easily fall apart when cooking stir-fries, curries and pasta dishes. It’s all too easy to end up with a meal that’s essentially two-thirds pasta and one-third meat, with minimal vegies. To stay healthy, it’s important to keep up your veg intake, which means tweaking proportions within current, popular meals, too.

Your perfectly portioned plate

Portion size plate

½ plate = vegies & salad (at least 3 serves)
Aim for a variety of colourful veg (carrots, broccoli, capsicum, snow peas). One serve is half a cup of cooked veg (peas, corn, carrots) or one cup of salad vegetables (lettuce, tomato, cucumber, baby rocket, red onion, capsicum).

¼ plate = low-GI carbohydrates (2 serves)
Choose high-fibre or wholegrain varieties, such as grainy bread, wholemeal pasta and brown rice. One serve is half a cup of cooked pasta or rice, a slice of bread or one small potato.

¼ plate = lean protein (1 serve)
Think chicken, red meat, eggs, seafood, beans, lentils and tofu. Trim visible fat from red meat and take skin off chicken. One serve of meat is about the size and thickness of your palm; two eggs; a cup of cooked legumes; or 170g tofu.

Practise ‘Crowding’

Traditional diets focus on foods you need to eat less of, whereas ‘crowding’ is the opposite. Focus on what you want to eat more of, such as vegies, fruit, legumes and whole grains. By putting more of the healthy foods on your plate, you naturally ‘crowd out’ the less healthy options.

Easy ways to crowd out, not cut out

  •  Load your plate with vegetables and/or salad first. Serve salads and vegies in a large communal bowl or platter so everyone can help themselves and go back for seconds if desired.\
  •  Add canned and drained legumes, such as lentils, beans and chickpeas, to family favourites like bolognese or taco mince.
  • Get creative with dressings and seasonings for salad and vegies. If they taste good, you’ll eat more of them! A drizzle of balsamic vinegar can be all you need to jazz up a simple salad.
  • Include vegies in breakfast. Eggs, avocado and mushrooms on toast; vegie omelettes; or a four-bean brekkie wrap are tasty and filling ways to start your day.
  • Make a snack platter from nuts, fruit, veg, hoummos, grainy crackers and thin wedges of cheese. This is a nutritious and delicious way to entertain at home, too.

8 tips to get your portions right

  1. Eat for your energy needs
    Be mindful that your body size and activity levels will most likely not be the same as your partner’s. Women generally (but not always!) need to eat less than men. People with sedentary occupations also need to eat less than people who have physically active occupations.
  2. Visualise your plate
    Your plate should look like this: ½ veg, ¼ starchy carbs and ¼ protein. By plating up with this visual reference in mind, you’ll cut out energy density (calories), but boost nutrient density (vitamins and minerals).
  3. Use smaller plates
    Take a good look at your crockery. If your plates and bowls are recent buys, they might be on the larger size. Australian dinner plate sizes have gradually upsized from 25cm in diameter in the 1970s to more than 30cm in recent years. Switch to smaller plates and you’ll automatically serve smaller portions.
  4. Manage leftovers
    Instead of picking at leftovers after you’ve finished your meal, decant them straight into an air-tight container to store in the fridge for another day. Depending on what type of foods are left over, you might be able to store them in the freezer for longer.
  5. Focus on your meal
    Avoid distractions while eating, such as watching TV or using your phone. These activities can be all absorbing, causing you to ignore your innate hunger and satiated signals and eat more than your body actually needs. Sit down at the table to eat, and focus on enjoying your meal.
  6. Plate up in the kitchen
    Instead of at the dining table, plate up in the kitchen so you can’t tuck into seconds… or thirds. Salads and vegie sides are the exception, as most people don’t eat enough of these foods. ‘Crowding out’ your plate with veg also boosts your fibre and nutrient intake.
  7. Adapt recipes
    If you’re eating solo and you cook a recipe that serves two or four, chances are you’ll eat more. When cooking Healthy Food Guide recipes, adapt them by halving or quartering the ingredient quantities. If you do stick to the ‘serves four’ recipe, individually portion the remainders to eat later.
  8. Don’t clear your plate
    Eating everything on your plate, or telling your kids to do this, is not helpful, as it ignores your natural fullness signals. Concentrate on how you feel, not how much you think you should eat. Once you realise how much you actually need to eat, you’ll serve up less.

Think of it like this…
By filling half your plate with a mixture of vegetables and salad, there is naturally less room on your plate for other foods. Vegies are high in fibre, low in kilojoules and super filling, so even though it seems like you are eating a lot of food, you’re actually not.  Load your plate with vegetables and/or salad first. Serve salads and vegies in a large communal bowl or platter so everyone can help themselves and go back for seconds if desired.

First published: May 2022

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