It’s a very common question I hear all the time, and rightly so. When you’re just starting out with Paleo, especially if you’re coming from a past of calorie-counting (and generally restriction) or other portion control tactics, it can be intimidating to think you’re just going to wing what goes on your plate.
The simple—and perhaps frustrating—thing is that there is no one correct Paleo portion size. If there was a magic calculator where I could plug in your age, sex, current weight and activity level and pop out a perfect number of calories, I’d be rich! Oh wait, there are already dozens, if not hundreds of websites (and books) that claim to do this. They all fail in my eyes and here’s why.
The Trouble with Calories
Let’s say you use AmazingCalorieCalculator.com (not a real site) to figure out your perfect caloric intake. It says 1400. So, you go about your time reading food labels and quantifying everything that passes your lips. Whether you’re paying attention to food quality or not at all—1400 calories could be meat, veggies and sweet potatoes or a mega-giant pile of M&Ms—even if you meet 1400 calories, you might still be underfed.
See the problem? If you’re trying to hit a caloric maximum for the day and end up still feeling hungry, low on energy, body composition not improving, moody and irritable and sleeping poorly, that’s a huge sign that something is amiss. (Into macros? Read more about The Problem with Macros).
One other thing: Paleo is not about severe restriction of calories or macronutrients. You’ll be nourishing your body, and while you may lose weight (fat) there are myriad other ways your health can improve. Here’s a list to read.
It’s Not a Caloric Free-For-All Either
While the “calories in-calories out” idea is basically debunked, it’s pretty fallacious to think one can binge on sticks of grass-fed butter, eat pounds of nuts and a side of beef daily and find optimum health. All food has calories, and how those foods affect our bodies biochemically is not the same. (For more on calories, I highly recommend this book.)
Where folks often find trouble with Paleo portion sizes is thinking everything is unrestricted. Eating a little too much one day and a little less the next isn’t a huge problem. Chronic overconsumption of calories, even from “good” foods like those that fit a Paleo template, can also lead to issues.
So, how much is just right?
Paleo Portion Sizes: Some Simple Rules
Following these simple rules when you’re starting Paleo will give you a framework around how to build a meal. It’s by no means an exact science. Remember, you’ll have to pay attention to the outcomes of what you eat. To borrow a Robb Wolf-ism, “How do you look, feel and perform?” It may take a while (read: a few weeks to months to even a year) to be able to eat intuitively without thinking about every morsel you put on your plate.
Paleo Portion Sizes Rule #1: Eat three meals a day.
Breakfast is not an option. Coffee is not breakfast. Three times a day, fill a plate with protein, veggies and some fruit, and healthy fat. If you’re training hard for a sport, eating a bit of protein and carb after your training session is a small fourth meal. (Learn more about that here.)
I get questions all the time about intermittent fasting, and it’s my belief that 1) it’s not for everyone and 2) you don’t earn the right to fast until you’ve been eating Paleo for at least six months. Feel free to disagree, but if you’re still a newb, eating full meals and getting accustomed to what that’s like and how it makes you feel is critical. Trying to food hack your way into Paleo when you’re starting doesn’t actually teach you how to eat properly.
For a visual on what a balanced plate looks like, see this guide by my friends at Whole30.
Paleo Portion Sizes Rule #2: Eat a balanced plate.
Protein, carbohydrate (in the form of veggies, fruit and starchy veggies…a mixture throughout the day, not necessarily all three on one plate) and fat need to feature at every meal. Remember, don’t start food-hacking your diet if you’ve just started Paleo. Give it time for your hormones to normalize and for real change to happen before you go for the trendy stuff.
Recognize that if you have more body mass, you need to eat proportionally more food compared to someone who has a smaller body mass. Example: If your friend weighs 60kg and eats 3 eggs at breakfast but you weight 100kg, that doesn’t mean 3 eggs is an appropriate amount of protein for you. It’s probably not enough.
Paleo Portion Sizes Rule #3: Reduce your dependence on snacks.
Snacks happen. That’s life. But, if you’re packing two or more sets of snacks daily to eat between meals, you need to eat more at meal time. Period.
Going 4 to 6 hours comfortably between meals is NORMAL. It gives our bodies time to digest what we’ve eaten and then lets our guts rest for a while. You’re not a cow, and you don’t need to graze all day. It doesn’t “rev your metabolism” or any of the other sexy claims you hear. What it does do is put constant demand on your digestive system to deal with a perpetual influx of food.
If you’re hungry after 2 to 3 hours, eat a bit more at meal time: a couple extra ounces of meat, another handful of veggies, another spoonful of fat, etc.
Paleo Portion Sizes: How to tell if they’re working.
Eating appropriate amounts of nourishing foods should support:
- normalized body composition (reduced fat and increased muscle) OVER TIME.
- stable energy throughout the day.
- clear-headedness and mental acuity.
- restorative and restful sleep.
- a feeling of satiety after meals.
- good mood.
- a healthy sex drive.
These are just a few ways to tell if what you’re eating is really helping you thrive!