‘Handy’ guide for food portion insights from British Nutrition Foundation

A simple method (literally a handy guide) can help keep ‘portion distortion’ at bay and help us eat more sensibly based on our own body’s needs.

The British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) has launched a practical guide to portion sizes: Find Your Balance, to help people to understand not just which foods to eat, but how often and in what quantities. In this way we can maintain a healthy weight while eating a balanced diet. The guide uses simple hand and spoon measurements to help us all to estimate appropriate portions when cooking and serving food.

The BNF’s new guide is designed to complement the government’s Eatwell Guide, which also provides guidance on the proportions of the main food groups that make up a healthy diet.

To develop the portion size guidelines, BNF’s Nutrition Scientists reviewed portion size guidance from other countries, analysed portion sizes currently consumed in the UK, and what is available to buy in supermarkets. These portion sizes were modelled in test diets to ensure they could meet current food and nutrient-based recommendations. Based on this, guidance was developed on how often to eat foods from the main food groups and sensible portion sizes for healthy adults, based on an average daily calorie allowance of 2000kcal.

In order to provide practical ways of estimating these portions without having to weigh out foods, the BNF devised easy-to-use measures for most foods, based on using hands or spoons.

The BNF’s portion size guidance comes in three free resources: a fridge poster which provides an overview of the advice; a booklet which expands on how to put the portion guidelines into practice; and a longer digital resource, which is downloadable, with advice on portion sizes for a wide variety of foods.

A helping hand
Bridget Benelam, Nutrition Communications Manager at the British Nutrition Foundation, says of the new resources, “More often than not, portion size is not something people give much thought to. The amount we put on our plate typically depends on the portion sizes we are used to consuming, how hungry we feel and how much is offered as a helping at a restaurant table or in a packet/ready meal. Nonetheless, in order to maintain a healthy weight we should ensure that our diets contain the right balance of foods, in sensible amounts. This isn’t just about eating less; it’s also about eating differently.”

When researching the portion size guidelines, the BNF looked at data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) on food consumption, and found that there was a lot of variation in the portion sizes people reported eating. Says Benelam, “Our suggested portion size for cooked pasta is 180 grams (254kcal) but, for example, when we looked at portion sizes for spaghetti, the most commonly consumed size was 230 grams (324kcal) and about 10% of the sample we looked at were consuming 350 grams as a portion, which would provide nearly 500 calories from the pasta alone, before sauces and sides were added to the meal.”

Within its portion size guide, the BNF has advised how often the suggested portions of foods from different food groups should be eaten during the day, and demonstrates how to put this into practice with an example meal plan. The food groups include:

  • Fruit and vegetables – 5+ portions per day
  • Starchy carbohydrates – 3-4 portions per day
  • Protein foods – 2-3 portions per day
  • Dairy and alternatives – 2-3 portions per day
  • Unsaturated oils and spreads – small amounts

Benelam continues, “While the types of different food and drinks we need apply to all healthy adults, we understand that no two individuals are the same and the amount of food we need varies from person to person. If you’re tall or very active you may need more and could have larger portions, and if you have a slighter build or are trying to lose weight, you may need smaller portions.”

Carbs and cals
Within the protein foods and starchy carbohydrates food groups, the BNF has broken down portion sizes into different categories to reflect portions that are 200kcal or more, less than 200kcal, and lighter snack-sized portions. This reflects the variety of foods in these groups and whether they would be eaten as a main meal or something lighter, allowing people to choose the portion sizes most appropriate for them. Those with higher calorie needs could have more of the foods that are 200kcal or more, and for people with lower calorie needs, or trying to lose weight, could choose more options under 200kcal.

Dairy foods are separated into those that are lower or higher fat (‘low’ or ‘medium’ for fat on a food label, versus those that would be labelled ‘high’ for fat) – it is recommended that we should go for those in the lower category most of the time. When it comes to fruit and vegetables, the key message is just to eat more! Example portions are given but, provided fat and sugar aren’t added, you can have big portions of most fruit and vegetables for relatively few calories so, within reason, you don’t need to limit portion sizes of these.

When it comes to unsaturated oils and spreads, these are healthier fats and we should be replacing saturated with unsaturated fats. However, all fats and oils are high in calories so it’s important to keep portions smaller.

You can access the BNF’s handy guide to portion sizes here: nutrition.org.uk/findyourbalance

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