Hand portions guide. How to use your hands for portion control (free pdf)

Plate of food

Hand portions. So hot right now.

Hand portions meme

Are hand portions the perfect method for monitoring how much you’re eating? No, probably not. There is no single perfect method.

However having a method helps you reduce the margin for error and provides feedback that helps you adjust based on the results you’re getting.

If you’ve got a little food log fatigue, and need a break from weighing food portions, and tracking macronutrients this is the article for you. 

What is the hand portion diet?

It’s not so much a diet as it is a way to be more mindful about how much you’re eating. Diets in the traditional sense have rules around what you can and can not eat.

  • Keto asks you to eliminate carbs and eat a shit ton of fat so you can get into ketosis
  • A vegan diet asks you to eliminate animal products
  • Paleo suggests you forget about grains, legumes, and dairy
  • Carnivore is silly but if you like it and it works for you, cool. You do you.

Using your hands to estimate portion sizes acts as a way to reduce the margin of error for how much you’re eating. 

Can you lose weight by using your hands for portion control?

You can if using your hands to estimate portions puts you in a calorie deficit over time. If it does this you will lose weight. If it doesn’t, you will not lose weight.

  • To lose weight, you must eat fewer calories than your body needs. This is a calorie deficit.
  • To gain weight, you must eat more calories than your body needs. This is a calorie surplus.
  • To maintain weight, you must eat the calories your body needs. This is calorie maintenance.

If you’re not losing weight you’re eating too much even if you think you’re not. Not gaining weight? You’re not eating enough even if you think you are.

Using your hands to estimate portion sizes is one of many ways to control calorie intake. I’ve written more in-depth about some of the other ways here

How do you use your hands for portion control?

Hand portions

🍗 Protein

A serving of protein is about the size and thickness of your palm. This is equivalent to 3-4 ounces (85-115 grams) of cooked animal protein. If you’re someone that tracks macronutrients this is about 20-30 grams of protein. This includes but is not limited to:

  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Beef
  • Fish
  • Tofu
  • Protein powder
  • Greek yogurt

🥦 Veggies (non-starchy)

A serving of veggies is around the size of a clenched fist. This is equivalent to roughly 1 cup of cooked non-starchy vegetables. This includes but is not limited to:

  • Broccoli
  • Carrot
  • Mushroom
  • Spinach
  • Zucchini

🍞 Carbohydrates (starchy and fruit)

One serving of carbs is about the size of one cupped handful (or 1 fist). This is roughly 1 cup cooked or 100-130 grams of carbohydrates or 1 medium fruit. If you’re someone that tracks macronutrients this is about 20-30 grams of carbohydrates. This includes but is not limited to:

  • Apple
  • Banana
  • Beans
  • Berries
  • Oats
  • Potato
  • Rice

🥑 Fats

A serving of fats is around the size of your thumb. This is about 1 tablespoon or half an ounce (or 14 grams). If you track macronutrients this is about 7-12 grams of fats. This includes but is not limited to:

  • Avocado
  • Olive oil
  • Nuts and seeds

Why would you use your hands to calculate portion sizes?

I’m coming in hot fire Tapatio with 5 reasons for using your hands to estimate portion sizes.  
1️⃣ – They travel well and you take them with you everywhere you go. Unless of course, you don’t have hands. In that case, I apologize for this post. You can use your hands to estimate the serving sizes of meals you make at home, eat at restaurants, at social gatherings, or while traveling. 
2️⃣ – Your hands don’t change size (if you’re done growing). This provides a consistent unit of measure which can make it easier to adjust. If you are still growing, that’s great too. As you grow you’ll require larger servings to provide enough food for your body.
3️⃣ – Hand portions scale with the individual. Bigger people need more food, and typically have larger hands, which means larger servings. Smaller people need less food, and typically have smaller hands, which means smaller servings.
4️⃣ – Using your hands can save you time and reduce friction in monitoring portion sizes. Weighing portions on a food scale is a very valuable practice but it’s not for everyone. It can be tedious and time-consuming at first. 
5️⃣ – Regular self-monitoring helps you understand what’s going on. What you’re doing well, not as well as you would like, and makes it easier to adjust based on the feedback and results you’re getting. Using your hands to estimate gives you a target to aim for and with a target, it’s easier to aim and adjust.

What are 5 other methods for portion control?

Below, we’ll quickly outline 5 alternative methods for easy portion control.

  • Balanced plates
  • Portion control containers/plates
  • Smaller plates
  • Eating slowly
  • Food journaling

Balanced plates

nutrition plate for men and women with portions
This is one of the easiest ways to monitor your portions and one of my favorite skills to build when working with nutrition coaching clients.

  • Take a standard 8 to 10-inch plate
  • Non-starchy veggies take up 1/2 of the plate
  • Protein makes up 1/4 of the plate
  • Starchy veggies take up the final 1/4 of the plate
  • A thumb or two of healthy fat or omit if eating a fattier cut of protein
  • Add a favorite zero or low-calorie beverage

Portion control plates, containers,  and Tupperware.

If you find estimating portions using your hands to be difficult, portion-control containers and plates can be helpful. Most of them apply the concepts of the balanced plate above.

Smaller plates

It’s very natural to eat what’s in front of you. Another easy way to monitor portion sizes is to use smaller plates, bowls, or glasses. If you’re currently using 10-inch plates, try 8-inch ones, or Tupperware.  If weight gain is your goal, use larger ones.

Eating slowly

It can take about 20 minutes for the mind and body to get on the same page about being full. Eating slower than normal can help you eat less if weight loss is a goal. Two of my favorite ways to practice eating slower are to use chopsticks and live by the mantra, “food in the mouth, fork on the plate.”

Food Journal

Writing down everything you eat and drink is a great way to build awareness around what and how much you’re eating. Even those bites, licks, nibbles, and tastes throughout the day. There are a number of ways you could go about this.

  • Weigh portions and track your calories and macronutrients in an app
  • Take pictures of your food and create a photo food journal to review
  • Simply write it down in a notebook or on the notes on your phone

How accurate are hand portions?

According to Precision Nutrition and their internal calculations. Estimating portion sizes using the hands can be as close as 95% when compared to weighing portions. One study suggests that while not perfect, one of the advantages of using your hands and fingers to estimate portions is that it’s portable and inexpensive.
Ultimately, the real value is having a standardized method that you’re using consistently. This makes it easier to adjust based on the results you’re getting. Not losing weight, try 1 less thumb of fats or 1 less cupped handful of carbs per day. Not gaining weight, try eating 1 more thumb of fat or 1 more cupped handful of carbs per day.

How many hand portions should I eat?

For most using the hand portions above is a great place to start. From there, adjusting based on a number of factors.

  • Goals
  • Activity levels
  • Results
  • Hunger
  • Energy
  • Cravings

For someone that eats 3 to 4 meals a day the following may be a good place to start.

For He/Him

  • 2 palms of protein per meal (6-8 per day)
  • 2 fists of non-starchy veggies per meal (6-8 per day)
  • 2 cupped handfuls of starchy carbs (6-8 per day)
  • 2 thumbs of healthy fats (6-8 per day)

For She/Her

  • 1 palm of protein per meal (3-4 per day)
  • 1 fist of non-starchy veggies per meal (3-4per day)
  • 1 cupped handful of starchy carbs (3-4per day)
  • 1 thumb of healthy fats (3-4per day)

Based on the results you’re getting you simply adjust your portions up or down.

Not losing fat at a realistic rate?  Try reducing your caloric intake by removing 1-2 cupped handfuls of carbs and/or 1-2 thumbs of fats from your daily intake. 
Not gaining muscle at a realistic rate? Try increasing your caloric intake by adding 1-2 cupped handfuls of carbs and/or 1-2 thumbs of fats from your daily intake. 
Losing too much muscle/strength when losing weight? Add 1 extra palm of protein to your daily intake.
Gaining too much fat when adding muscle/strength? Increase your protein but 1 palm, and reduce your carb and/or fat intake by 2-4 servings (1-2 servings of each).

How do I use hand portions with keto, paleo, vegan, intermittent fasting, or other diets?

The simplest way to go approach this is by replacing one portion for another. For example, if you enjoy a lower-carb diet, and eat three meals a day. At one of your meals, you could swap a portion of carbs (i.e. rice) and add an extra portion of fat (i.e. olive oil).
You could also split the portion of carbs up between fats and protein by adding a half portion of fat and half a portion of protein. If you wanted to go lower carb you could continue doing this are more meals.

How do you use hand portions for combination foods?

This gets a bit trickier but there are a few ways you could approach it. Let’s use whole milk as an example.

whole milk label

Looking at the label you can see that it has 8 grams of fat, 12 grams of carbs, and 8 grams of protein per serving. Using hand portions that come out to be about the following portions.

  • 1 thumb or 1 serving of fat (7-12g per serving)
  • 1/2 cupped handful of carbs or 1/2 serving (20-30g per serving)
  • 1/3 palm of protein or 1/3 serving (20-30g per serving)

You could break it down like this and include the servings for each macronutrient. But that sort of defeats the simplicity and ease of use we’re looking for when using hands to estimate portions. 

Instead, because it’s 1 serving of fat I suggest classifying it as that and moving on. You could also choose to include it as a half serving of carbs, or 1/3 serving of protein if you prefer. The key is that whatever you decide to use make it consistent. 

Eggs are another interesting food. Each one contains about 7 grams of protein and 7 grams of fat. Should you include it as a portion of fat or protein? Most of us consider eggs to be a protein source and I would suggest doing so here. 2-3 eggs can fit in most palms and offer about 14-21 grams of protein, making them about 1 serving.
The method is not perfect by any means. But again, the idea isn’t about being perfect. It’s having a system for self-monitoring. Simply having a system adds accountability, reduces the margin for error, and allows you to adjust based on the results you’re getting. 

How do I use hand portions for mixed food meals?

If you didn’t make the meal yourself you may have to eyeball it and make your best guess. The good thing is that the more practice you put in with this method the more accurate you’ll become. If you did make the meal you can always use the hand portions before adding the ingredients together. 
Another idea is to not worry about whether there is a serving of protein, veggies, carbs, or fats in the meal. Instead, focus on serving yourself one plate or bowl, eating slowly, and stopping when 80% full. 
If it helps, typically about 2 cupped handfuls of mixed meals is 1 serving for most people. So if you have a stir-fry or chili you can use that as a way to estimate. 

How do I use hand portions for vegetarian protein sources?

It depends on the meal and the eating preference of the individual. For example, a plant-based eater doesn’t eat animal protein and may use foods like legumes, lentils, and quinoa as sources of protein but they also contain carbs.
For plant-based eaters, you may want to continue using them as your protein source and simply be aware that they have servings of carbs in them. This may mean you don’t have to add as many servings of carbohydrates to the meal. If you do eat animal protein you most likely would consider them your source of carbs for the meal.

4 Big Mistakes People Make When Using Their Hands to Estimate Portion Sizes

1️⃣ – Forgetting to include bites, licks, nibbles, and tastes. Let’s be honest, most of us pick at food over the course of a day. Spoon in the peanut butter here, break off a little donut there, and snack a bit while cooking. You’ll want to factor these into your portions for the day. Or, simply be aware of them and how they may be affecting your progress.

2️⃣ – Not tracking hand portions consistently. Maybe you track for a day or two, then take a break. You get back to it for a few more days but take another break. Give yourself at least 2 to 4 weeks of consistent tracking before evaluating your results.

3️⃣ – Trying to change too much at once. It’s easy to forget that eating better more consistently involves learning new skills. When learning new stuff you’re going to suck at it. Instead of trying to apply hand portions to every single meal, try focusing on one meal at a time. When you feel like you have that down, move on to another meal.

4️⃣ – Trying to be perfect with it. Not every food is going to fit perfectly into the hand portion method and this is ok. You don’t need to be perfect to be successful. Most people will do better just by having a self-monitoring method. 

How to apply hand portions today

Start with one meal a day for one week. At the end of the week, if you’re feeling confident, level up to two meals per day. Eventually, you work up to however many meals you eat per day.

Keep in mind that this is another tool in your toolbox to help you do a job. There are many ways to eat healthier, lose weight, monitor portions, and improve your relationship with food.

Ultimately, what matters most is finding a method or methods that make the most sense for YOU and help you do the job you’re looking to complete.


Photo by Sam Moghadam Khamseh on Unsplash