If you’re eating well but hitting a weight-loss plateau, the amount on your plate – not the food itself – could be the culprit. Dietitian Melissa Meier shares some surprising news about how much we should be eating.
Ever wondered how much food you should actually eat in a day?
You’re not alone. As a dietitian, I’ve seen loads of people wanting to improve their health without a clue as to what their nutritional needs – and therefore their intake requirements – actually are.
Is a whole avocado too much? How much protein do I need? And how much veg is enough?
If you’re asking yourself the same questions, you’ve hit the jackpot. Say hello to your go-to serving size cheat sheet so you never have to be confused by diet culture again.
What’s a single serve?
Let’s talk food groups. In case you’ve forgotten, they are fruit, vegetables, grains, meat and alternatives, and dairy and alternatives. Each of these food groups offers a different set of nutrients and should be eaten in different amounts (we’ll get to that part in a moment).
Fruit is rich in gut-loving fibre, vitamin C to support your immune system, and disease-fighting antioxidants. Yes, fruit contains some sugar, but it is natural sugar that comes packaged with a tonne of beneficial nutrients. One serve of fruit is simply a piece of fruit – an apple, an orange, a banana.
Two smaller fruits, like kiwifruit or plums, also count as one serve, as does a cup (as in a measuring cup) of something like fruit salad, berries or grapes.
Just like fruit, veg provide all the good stuff: fibre, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. They’re (mostly) ultra-low in energy, so you can eat a lot of them. As a general rule, one serve is 75g. That’s equivalent to half a cup of cooked veggies (think: steamed cauliflower, sautéed broccoli or roasted pumpkin) or one cup of raw veggies (like salad or carrot sticks). Legumes (beans, chickpeas and lentils) count here, too, with half a cup being one serve.
Now for the truth bomb: grains are very good for you. Like seriously good.
Despite what every fad diet under the sun wants you to think, grains offer valuable nutrition (fibre, B-group vitamins, iron) and aren’t going to instantly add 5kg to your thighs, I promise (hellooooo, bread!).
For the most part, you want to choose whole grains like rolled oats, wholemeal pasta and quinoa over refined grains like white bread, white rice and couscous. That’s because whole grains offer far more nutrition and are usually low-GI, so you’ll stay fuller for longer.
One serve of grain foods equates to a slice of bread, half a bread roll, two thirds of a cup of breakfast cereal or a quarter of a cup of muesli. Half a cup of anything cooked (pasta, rice, noodles, buckwheat, polenta) counts too.
Meat and alternatives
Note ‘alternatives’ – not only does this food group include red meat, poultry, seafood and eggs, but also legumes, tofu, nuts and seeds too. It’s a wise idea to include all of these foods in your weekly repertoire, rather than focusing on animal-based proteins only.
As a whole, this food group offers muscle-building protein, energising iron and zinc for wound healing. Your hand is a good indicator of serving sizes here – just your palm for red meat, a little more for chicken, and the size of your whole hand for fish. Two eggs, a cup of legumes, 170g of tofu or 30g of nuts or seeds contribute one serve of protein as well.
Dairy and alternatives
We’re talking milk, yoghurt, cheese or plant-based substitutes that are fortified with calcium. If dairy isn’t for you, ensuring your alternative (soy milk, almond milk, oat milk, etc.) has calcium added to it is very important to maintain bone health. One serve equates to a cup of milk, three quarters of a cup of yoghurt or two slices (40g) of cheese.
Adding it all up
Now we’re down to the money section. For this part, I’m going to focus on females aged between 19 and 50. If you’re male or an older or younger female, your recommended intake will differ slightly.
Regardless, this is a guide only and your individual requirements may differ based on your lifestyle, activity level and overall health.
Got it? Good.
On a typical day, it’s recommended you have:
- two serves of fruit
- five serves of veg
- six serves of grains (yes, six!)
- two and a half serves of dairy and alternatives
- two and a half serves of meat and alternatives.
You might’ve noticed I am yet to mention fats – these are an essential part of a healthy diet, but technically aren’t classed as a food group on their own. I’d recommend you include a couple of small portions of healthy fats somewhere throughout your day. Think: a handful of nuts, a quarter of an avocado or extra virgin olive oil as a dressing for your salad.
To give you an idea of what this could look like as a whole, here’s my dietitian-approved day on a plate:
Half a cup of muesli, three quarters of a cup of yoghurt, a handful of macadamias and a piece of fruit.
A piece of fruit and a homemade latte.
Tuna sandwich on wholegrain bread with one cup of salad and a slice of cheese.
A cup of veggie sticks, a tablespoon of hummus and a hard-boiled egg.
A veggie-packed stir-fry cooked in extra virgin olive oil; made of one and a half cups of cooked veg, one cup of cooked long-grain brown rice and 170g tofu.
Melissa Meier is a Sydney-based Accredited Practising Dietitian. You can connect with her at www.honestnutrition.com.au or on Instagram @honest_nutrition.