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An illustration of a woman holding a plate of food in each of her hands, almost as if she's weighing the weight of them.

The concept of calorie balance is often a focal point when it comes to nutrition for weight change, athletic performance, and the management of certain situations, such as pregnancy, breastfeeding, diabetes, or thyroid function.

For some, counting calories and food amounts brings a sense of understanding and mindful control of their intake. For others, doing so sounds tedious and obsessive — and can potentially trigger an unhealthy or disordered relationship with food.

As with most things in health and fitness, the best approach for most of us is a moderate one.

Why weigh and measure foods in the first place?

There’s no such thing as healthy eating that lacks awareness. Weighing and measuring foods is one tool you could utilize to help you better understand the portions, amounts, and nutrient content of what you’re consuming.

That being said, there’s rarely a need to weigh and measure foods in perpetuity, as that can lead to obsessive (and unhealthy) behaviors and thinking about nutrition — as well as challenges navigating social situations involving food.

Note: For those who struggle with a tendency or history of disordered eating, it’s critical to consult with a qualified expert for the right approach for you, as weighing and measuring foods is unlikely to be appropriate and can lead to harmful behavior.

In my experience with most clients, a short-term strategy of weighing and measuring certain foods can serve their overall goals and provide great insights and self-awareness. Often one to two weeks can be eye-opening and help teach us how to better eyeball portions and balance out our plates.

Below are the top five foods that I’ve found people to be most surprised by when weighing out and measuring them. Consider giving it a try to increase your awareness and nutrition understanding.

1. Nut butter

Peanut, almond, and other nut and seed butters are one of the most commonly underestimated contributors to excess calorie intake. Although they contain carbohydrates, protein, and fat, they are primarily fat, and therefore are nutrient dense.

A typical serving size is around two tablespoons, or about 30 grams or so. If you happen to have a food scale, try scooping out your typical portion and weighing it. (If the one you have measures in ounces, note that one ounce is equal to 28 grams). If not, use a tablespoon to scoop some out of the jar and a butter knife to level off each of the two tablespoons.

It’s not uncommon to realize that the serving you’ve been consuming is nearly double — or even triple — what you thought. And since a standard serving of nut butter is usually in the ballpark of 200 calories, an accidental double serving — such as in a daily protein shake, on toast, or even as a fly-by snack right out of the jar — can add up quickly.

2. Liquid oils and cooking fats

I grew up in an immigrant family that valued from-scratch cooking, and pan-frying some traditional dishes always came with a liberal swirl of cooking oil or butter. The amount used was always eyeballed based on how the food looked in the pan, and an extra splash here or there was commonly added during the cooking process.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with using healthy oils and cooking fats, such as olive, avocado, or coconut oils, or pastured butter. They add flavor and mouthfeel to foods and can even help enhance the absorption of certain vitamins, such as the vitamin K found in leafy green vegetables.

But for those who are aiming for specific nutrition targets, they’re easy to overdo — and to overlook if you’re tracking your food. Most cooking fats are in the range of 120 calories per tablespoon. If you’re scooping out a couple of tablespoons to stir-fry some veggies, a side dish can easily go from 60 calories or so to north of 200 or 300.

Again, this might not be an issue — but knowing what you’re eating is typically better than guessing and chronically underestimating.

3. Total produce intake

At Life Time, our nutrition philosophy includes eating a diet that is dense in vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients — including targeting nine to 11 servings of vegetables and fruits per day (heavier on the vegetables).

The range of colors of fruits and vegetables signify the presence of beneficial plant nutrients and compounds that can infer several health benefits and provide a variety of antioxidants. This is why we emphasize variety and advise you to “eat the rainbow.”

I often get questions on what “counts” as a serving of produce. The general rule of thumb is one cup raw or a half-cup cooked, but that can get confusing — and vary — based on the type of vegetable or fruit you’re eating.

Is it one cup of lettuce or two considering it’s so light? Since spinach cooks down so much, should I count it raw or cooked? Do powdered greens, such as Life Greens, count? (Hint: I love Life Greens for the more than 40 different freeze-dried fruits and vegetables it contains, but I do count it as a bonus rather than a produce serving.)

Here’s the thing with produce: The objective is to have a high intake without necessarily splitting hairs or worrying about the serving size. Generally, the more you can consume and tolerate, the better. (Note: Because of the naturally occurring sugar in fruit, it can be helpful to try to aim for three to four servings of veggies for every one serving of fruit. )

The purpose of measuring here is more for the fun of doing a week (or longer) challenge to see the total weight you’re actually consuming. I find that those who are “there” in terms of hitting the target nine to 11 servings usually are eating between 1.5 to 2 pounds of produce per day.

4. Cooked meat, fish, poultry

A higher protein diet can provide certain health benefits. A common recommendation is to target consuming one gram or so per pound of your goal body weight.

Figuring out how close you are to that target protein goal is not immediately intuitive. While meat, fish, and poultry contain primarily protein, they also offer varying amounts of fat, and a lot of people erroneously assume that the weight of the protein-containing food they’re eating is equivalent to the amount of protein they’re obtaining from it.

Meat, fish, and poultry provide an average of 7 grams of protein per ounce after cooking, depending on the source and the cut. For example, 4.3 ounces of one of these cooked foods would provide you with approximately 30 grams of protein. To help you visualize this better, here’s a great article that shows what 30 grams of protein looks like from various foods.

As you build out your nutrition plan, it can be helpful to weigh out your portions of protein for a period of time to help you more evenly spread out your intake throughout the day. This helps to stabilize energy levels, control cravings, and provide a steady pool of amino acids (protein building blocks) into your bloodstream.

Take your total protein target in grams, then subtract the amount of protein you regularly consume from other high-protein foods, such as dairy, eggs, and tofu (and to a lesser degree, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds). Take the remaining number and divide it by the number of meals and snacks you eat each day to calculate the desired number of grams per eating occasion that you’d want to come from meat, fish, and poultry. Then, divide by seven to pinpoint the approximate number of ounces.

For example, if your goal weight is 150 pounds, and you eat one Greek yogurt daily providing 15 grams of protein, your target from meat, fish, and poultry would be 135 daily grams. If you eat three meals and one snack per day, you’d want to aim for about 34 grams, or 4.8 ounces, at each meal and snack.

From there, challenge yourself to prioritize this target and notice the impact it has on your appetite and energy levels.

You might be surprised to learn that your protein intake is woefully off from your ideal target — and by boosting it, most people find that their appetite (and therefore calorie intake) starts to naturally self-regulate without the need to continue counting.

5. Alcohol, ice cream, and chips

Instead of naming one final food, let’s wrap up with a trifecta of options that can be categorized as “easily over-consumed treats.”

These three specifically are common pitfalls and are important to highlight as you think through your go-to indulgences. When hearing from people who are diligent with their nutrition intake Monday through Friday but like to let loose a bit on the weekends, I’ve seen “typical” amounts of these foods alone stall progress with body composition goals time and time again.

Adult beverages are often the trickiest of the three. The calorie totals come both from the alcohol the beverages contain (at approximately 7 calories per gram, edging close to the caloric content of fat) and any carbohydrates that may come along with it, such as in beer, wine, or mixers like cranberry juice. While beer in cans or bottles typically comes portion-controlled, wine and liquor options tend to be a bit more free-flowing.

Try measuring out 5 ounces of wine to eyeball what a standard serving is in the wine glass you typically use. If making your own cocktails at home, do the same using a standard shot glass. (It might be eye-opening to measure out your tonic water, juice, or other mixers as well.)

When it comes to chips and ice cream, the standard serving size on the package or container, when weighed out, is likely to look like a miniature or sample portion. The amount of sugar and calories in even a small kids-size cone from most ice cream shops is easy to underestimate, as it’s likely close to three times the standard 1/2 cup serving. And at 7.75 ounces, a typical bag of chips from the grocery store is supposed to be nearly eight servings — but realistically is unlikely to be spread that far at a family barbecue or game night get-together.

Try portioning these out so that you garner some experience estimating your true intake — it likely will save you some frustration if you’re experiencing a mystery plateau in your results.

Wrapping Up

For those who feel like their body does not cooperate and going “just a little” off track throws off their progress, measuring and weighing easily over-consumed foods can be empowering. It takes away the unknown and helps pinpoint how to adjust specific next steps in nutrition to see success.

On the flip side, health is just as much — or even more so — about consuming enough of the right foods, such as high-quality protein and fruits and vegetables. In these cases, weighing and measuring for the purposes of increasing your intake often highlights how much food a nutrient-dense diet provides, as well as makes for a fun and satisfying challenge.

Knowing your frequency and portions — whether you’re measuring or not — is part of making informed decisions about your unique nutrition needs. At the end of the day, a healthy eating approach comes down to awareness: Aim to balance eating foods that help you feel and function your best most of the time, while allowing for flexibility for mindful indulgences.

Keep the conversation going.

Leave a comment, ask a question, or see what others are talking about in the Life Time Health Facebook group.

Samantha McKinney, RD, CPT

Samantha McKinney has been a dietitian, trainer and coach for over 10 years. At first, her interests and experience were in a highly clinical setting in the medical field, which ended up laying a strong foundation for understanding metabolism as her true passion evolved: wellness and prevention. She hasn’t looked back since and has had the honor of supporting Life Time’s members and nutrition programs in various roles since 2011.

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