Portion Sizes: Building a Healthy Plate of Food

Clean eating isn’t an open licence to gorge on unprocessed food. In order to maintain a healthy weight, or lose weight, you need to be able to manage your portion sizes. In this article we will look at current advice regarding how much food to put on your plate.

Balance is key

Firstly, it is important to eat a balanced diet. The NHS uses the eatwell plate to provide guidance on how much of our food should be made up of each food group. This plate is not meant to represent the make-up of each meal, rather it represents the overall balance of a healthy diet.

  • bread, rice, potatoes, pasta and other starchy foods – 33%
  • fruit and vegetables – 33%
  • milk and dairy foods – 15%
  • meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein – 12%
  • foods and drinks high in fat and/or sugar – 8%



This eatwell plate has attracted criticism from various sources, in particular with regards to the lack of reference to liquid drinks – such as soft drinks and alcohol – which are a calorific source of energy in many people’s diets. The role of fats, and their lack of prominence in the plate has also been criticised recently, as it has come to light that the Government’s original guidelines on saturated fat were not based on sound scientific evidence1. Public Health England, in combination with the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, has been reviewing draft recommendations to update the plate and this revised version is expected to be published at some point this year2.

However, as it stands, the eatwell plate still provides a good visual guide to achieving that overall balance in your diet. All of these food groups can be included in a clean-eating diet. Your starchy carbohydrates should be minimally processed and wholegrain; dairy produce should also have been minimally processed with no additives, preservatives or artificial colours; and your sugars should be eaten in moderation and should come from natural sources such as dates, honey or maple syrup.

Portion sizes vs calorie counting

Calorie awareness is important, especially when you are clean-eating for weight-loss. It is good to know which foods have a high calorie content if you want to lose weight, and calorie awareness is also useful for ensuring that you are eating enough calories to meet your body’s daily energy needs. However the clean eating approach centres much more on managing portion sizes of healthy foods, rather than tracking and monitoring the calorie content of every food item that you eat.

Unlike the eatwell plate, which refers to overall balance in the diet, portion sizes refer to the amount of food on your plate that is eaten in a single sitting (note this can be different from manufacturers serving sizes). There are no current official guidelines from the UK Government on portion sizes. As a result industry, non-governmental organisations and healthcare professionals all use different sets of information and guidance on portion sizes, which can be very confusing.

A recent report by The British Heart Foundation suggests that the Government’s last publication on portions sizes in 1993 is outdated and irrelevant. As such, industry leaders have moved far away from these guidelines and have been increasing portion sizes3, probably as a result of consumer demand. Research has shown that when people are presented with more food, they eat more, and these large portion sizes may be contributing to the obesity crisis4.

What is a healthy portion size?

The amount that you need to eat varies depending on lots of different factors such as your sex, build, activity levels, age and genetic make-up5. This may be one of the reasons why authorities have not issued official guidelines.

However, advice from nutritionists is available and although it can vary from source to source, there is a general consensus that can be derived from the data6,7.

A handy (and portable) way of measuring clean-eating portion sizes is to use your hand as a guide.

portion sizes

For main meals, you should aim to eat:

– A palm sized portion of protein (for example meat, eggs, oily fish and pulses), or a whole hand sized portion of white fish (for example cod, haddock or Pollock).

– Half a tablespoon (or half the size of your thumb) of natural fats (mostly unsaturated).

– A clenched fist sized portion of uncooked pasta, uncooked rice or potatoes.

– Fresh vegetables can make up the rest of your plate.

Portion sizes for clean-eating snacks:

– You should aim for 2 to 4 servings of fruit a day depending on your activity levels8. 2 cupped hands will hold a portion of berries. 1 medium sized whole fruit (such as an apple or banana) would also count as 1 portion.

– A palm sized portion of nuts and/or seeds.

– A portion of cheese is approximately 30g, or the size of both of your thumbs placed side by side.


There is a lot of information available on portion sizes, however without official guidelines, and with so much variation from source to source, determining accurate portion sizes can be difficult. The Governments eatwell plate provides a handy guide to achieving an overall healthy balance in your diet and can be used for those following a clean-eating lifestyle. Using hand-related portions sizes for your clean-eating meals will prevent you from overeating. Common sense is required to alter these portion sizes based on your physical make-up and activity levels.


Related articles:

ARTICLE: Leptin Resistance: Overweight but Constantly Hungry
BLOG: Its Time to Stop Dieting: Eat More to Lose Weight


  4. file:///C:/Users/Sonia/Downloads/bhf_portion_distortion_oct2013.pdf


About the author: 

Sonia Nicholas is a Biomedical Scientist and Freelance Clinical Science Writer & Editor. She has been working in the field of clinical science for fifteen years.

Sonia believes that everyone can improve their health by eating a clean diet – a claim that scientific research increasingly supports. Sonia also believes that healthy, clean eating is accessible to all and doesn’t have to be an expensive lifestyle choice.

All of the information on The Green Apple Club website is in line with current, recommended Government guidelines. All of the articles are evidence based and fully scientifically referenced.

View Sonia’s LinkedIn profile


Left Hand image attribution: By Biswarup Ganguly (Own work) CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Tags: healthy portion sizes, eatwell plate

Leave a Comment

We would love to hear your comments, but please keep them respectful and friendly. Differences of opinion are fine, but we will not tolerate any trolling, abuse or judgment of other people's choices.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *