Healthy Portions At A Glance

What do healthy portions look like? Learn practical strategies to build a healthier plate.

While we feel strongly that the quality of food in your diet is more important than the quantity of what you eat, it’s impossible to ignore the increasing portion sizes in our food industry that continue to grow alongside our nation’s obesity epidemic (have you seen the size of a small drink at the movie theater lately?). Bigger portion sizes are not the only factor causing us to eat more—new social norms, numerous environmental stimuli, increased access to food, and targeted advertising all play a hand. Choosing better quality foods while keeping portion sizes in check leads to more balanced, healthier eating patterns.

Portions vs. serving sizes: what’s the difference?

First, let’s break down the difference between a serving size and portion size because they’re not the same thing. A serving size is a measurable amount of food, usually presented in cups or ounces. Serving sizes are used as guidance for recommended intake by health professionals, and associated with nutrition content on the Nutrition Facts Label of a food product. You’ll notice that packaged products usually contain more than one serving. Portion size refers to the actual amount of food on your plate, put there by you or someone else in a restaurant setting. 

Serving size guidelines: hand it to me

The quantity of food one should consume each day depends on a variety of factors including gender, size, activity level, and wellness goals. That being said, this is intended as general guidance so you can be more mindful of what a single serving looks like when you dish out your portions. Check out these hand symbols to see how serving sizes vary by type of food:


·      Cooked vegetables = closed fist (1 cup)

·      Dark leafy greens = 2 closed fists (2 cups)


·      Medium piece of fruit (apple, etc.) = closed fist (1 cup)

·      Berries = cupped hand/closed fist (1/2 – 1 cup)

·      Dried fruit = closed cupped hand (1/4 cup)


·      Rice/pasta/quinoa/oats, etc. = cupped hand (1/2 cup)

·      Bread = flat hand (1 slice)


·      Chicken/beef/fish = palm of hand (3 oz)

·      Beans/legumes (cooked) = cupped hand (1/2 cup)

·      Tofu = palm of hand (3 oz)

·      Hummus = 2 thumbs (2 tablespoons)

Healthy fats & oils; nuts and seeds

·      Healthy oils/ghee = thumb (1 tablespoon)

·      Nuts/seeds = closed cupped hand (1/4 cup)

·      Nut butters = thumb (1 tablespoon)

Dairy (and dairy alternatives)

·      Cheese = pointed finger (1.5 oz)

·      Cow’s milk or nut milk = closed fist (1 cup)

·      Yogurt = closed fist (1 cup)

Picture this: how to build a healthy plate

Another visual tool for healthy eating is to look at how different foods fill your plate at each meal. Nutrition experts at Harvard School of Public Health have created the Healthy Eating Plate, which can be found in detail here but recommends simply dividing your plate as follows:

½ your plate  = mostly vegetables and some fruit (choose a wide variety of veggies; eat fruits of all colors)

¼ your plate = whole grains (eat a variety of whole grains and limit refined grains)

¼ your plate = healthy protein (limit red meat and cheese; avoid processed meats)

They also encourage the use of healthy oils, limiting butter, and avoiding trans fat. More emphasis is placed on drinking water, tea and coffee, while limiting dairy and avoiding sugary drinks. Physical activity is also promoted as part of this guidance. Leave it to the Harvard folks to have some really solid (and practical) advice! Just watch the size of those plates, okay?

As we transition our food consumption to include more quality ingredients and real food, we develop a better since of intuitive eating. This includes eating when we’re hungry, recognizing signals for when we’re full, and knowing what foods fuel us best. However, because it takes some time to learn how to tune into your body’s own cues, these visual guides can more readily keep consumption within a healthy range.

Whatever strategy you choose to follow to ensure you’re eating the right amount of nourishing food, ditch the diet mentality and focus on filling your plate with healthier choices. The goal is to find and implement approaches that lead YOU to better wellness.



Blogpost written by Ascend content expert Ashley Hart