Paleo Portion Sizes: How Much Is Just Right?

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Paleo Portion Sizes—How Much is Just Right? | stupideasypaleo.comPaleo portion sizes—how much is just right?

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!

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Paleo Portion Sizes—How Much is Just Right? | stupideasypaleo.com

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39 thoughts on “Paleo Portion Sizes: How Much Is Just Right?

  1. Meg @ A Dash of Meg

    you just amaze me and i love the “how to know if it is working” part. i tend to question myself from time to time, but then going through that list i had positive answers for everything!

    great post as always, love! one of my favs :D

    Reply
  2. Kaitlin

    I really struggle with snacking! I feel full at meal time but am hungry before the next meal time. How do I increase how much food I can eat in one sitting?

    Reply
    1. Nicole

      I have the same issue. I eat until I’m full at meal-time but I am usually hungry again within 2-3 hours and if I don’t eat when my body says it’s hungry, I get awful headaches and feel terrible. I have been eating Paleo for about a year now, and I think there are just certain people who need to eat more often, in order to give their bodies what they need, and so long as your snacks aren’t things like chips, but are veggies, fruits, hard boiled eggs, etc…that give your body what it needs, then you should be fine. It’s not uncommon for me to snack on jicama sticks and quac at work!

      Reply
  3. Heather

    I remember when I was first starting out. I was desperate for answers I couldn’t find. I was SO use to counting every calorie and worse enough I knew almost every calorie count out there. I think my restrictions and poor choices contributed to my autoimmune condition. With some time and more research from wonderful bloggers/authors/paleo athletes I was/have been able to make better decisions everyday . Some days can be harder than others (Paleo-fied treats) with summer and dairy free ice creams all over the place, but those too can be incorporated with little frustration.

    I agree that snacks are no longer in my vocabulary since I make better meal choices than what I ever have before…. except my nut butter addiction!

    I can’t wait for the cookbook Steph! Thanks for all you do!

    Reply
  4. ellen

    The questions at the end of the article were the most helpful. I’m 5’4″ tall, my husband is 6’4″ tall. He weighs about 260 (we’re working on it) and I weigh 120. I eat MORE than he does but my metabolism is very fast, his very slow. It’s so individual! I’ve been strictly paleo for about 3 years. He’s been on board for most of this because I do all the cooking but lately he’s more enthusiastic. Exercise has so much to do with food and weight as well. I’m more active, which accounts for a lot!

    Reply
  5. Cristal Porter

    This is SUPER helpful. I hope this isn’t annoying, but I have a question…I’ve been Paleo for a while now but I noticed that I actually gained weight. Don’t get me wrong, I feel absolutely amazing. I am a recovering cardioholic so I’m thinking I’m just not used to the normal amounts of body fat.

    Anyway, so my question is, it is normal for those that were underweight to not look so slim and trim anymore but rather, curvy and to have a little jiggle? Funny question I know! Just wondering if I’m going a little crazy on the oh so satisfying fats my body has been yearning for ha ha!

    Reply
    1. Steph Post author

      Hi Cristal! That’s a really common question that I hear on the blog, and the answer is multilayered. If you come from a background of serious caloric restriction, eating Paleo and cutting back on cardio may lead to (necessary) weight gain because you’re simply nourishing your body and not tearing it down quite as much. For some people who gain some weight back, they may normalize and lose some as time goes on. Also, it’s possible that you’re gaining muscle mass and therefore, weigh more. Have you done before / after pics or taken measurements? That might be a good indication of whether your weight gain is the right kind.

      Reply
  6. Jessi

    Thanks for this post, Steph! I needed it. I’ve been snacking WAY too much lately. Far too many almonds, I think (I know, actually, and my belly can attest). I wonder if the heat + lack of hydration may be contributing. Usually I drink 65+ oz. of water every day, but recently I’ve been slipping, and I know thirst can masquerade as hunger. Any thoughts on this?

    Also, I work out 1-2X a day, and I need advice on pre-workout fuel. Do you have a post for this? In the past, I’ve done a hard-boiled egg or a banana.

    Thank you!

    Reply
    1. Candace Ricciardi

      Hi Jessi,

      Have you read my ebook, The Paleo Athlete? I go over pre and post workout food ideas to give you a guideline on working towards what’s optimal for you.
      :)

      Reply
  7. Liz

    I’ve been paleo for a while now but no success in losing weight and I’m sure it’s because of my calorie counting. I’m so tired of weighing food doing this and doing that. It’s frustrating. I’m a 280lb f trying to lose weight desperately :(

    Reply
    1. Tesha

      Hi Liz, if you need anyone to talk with and bounce ideas or frustrations with. I can help! I am not a health coach just an ordinary paleo person. Let me know

      Reply
  8. Zuravin Blaine

    Your website is my absolute favorite. It’s become like “ol’ faithful” as far as recipes are concerned. I think you’re great and I’m super excited about your cookbook as well. My question is about fasting. My guy and I started fasting once a week and we love it. Not the day of obviously but the next day feels like rebirth or something. However I’m about to start another whole30. I just finished rereading “it starts with food” and they touch on fasting a bit as far as the release of cortisol. In the book it doesn’t seem like the best thing to do but I know different things work for different people. I respect your opinion and I was wondering what your actual take on it is. I feel good after I do it so I feel like I should continue. Telling people I do it once a week is the equivalent to telling them I’m anorexic based on the reaction I get! I’m not sure what my question is except, have you tried intermittent fasting and what was your take on it?

    Reply
    1. Steph Post author

      Hi there! I think that for experienced Paleo eaters who have all their ducks in a row (not suffering from a tremendous amount of stress, eating well, sleeping well, not punishing themselves with hard training–all other stressors), it could be an option. Once a week may not a problem, but I don’t have much insight into your life other than what you’ve mentioned here.

      The thing is, we don’t know a lot about how IF affects reproductive-age females and their hormones (most of the studies done are either on males or post-menopausal women.)

      For the Whole30, I’d recommend stopping your fast and doing the protocol as Dallas and Melissa have outlined, then assessing it once your 30 days is over.

      Best to you and thank you for the kind words!

      Reply
  9. PK

    I don’t agree with these “Three Rules” – 1) breakfast IS an option and coffee with pastured cream is perfectly acceptable. Intermittent fasting works and is consistent with Paleo eating practices. 2) too much reliance on carbs in this rule – especially fruit. Fruit should be an optional occasional snack, with an emphasis on berries, not part of every meal. 3) nothing wrong with snacking – as long as snacks are things like a handful of nuts or berries, etc. Hunters/gatherers routinely grab a few grubs, a coconut (uto), a handful of berries, pemmican, etc. while they’re out looking for the evening meal.

    Reply
    1. Steph Post author

      Snacks are okay, but when they’re used daily, that tells me something isn’t right.

      I also agree that fasting is an option for some people, but remember my caveat is simply doing Paleo for long enough that you understand and know how to nourish yourself. Coffee with cream has almost no protein, and I really think that for newbies, it’s not breakfast.

      As for carbs, it totally depends on the person. Remember, very active people (especially the athletes I tend to work with) who are doing lots of high-intensity / endurance training with intervals NEED carbs. Sedentary folks, not so much. Berries are awesome and my go-to choice. I think you misunderstood how I wrote this section. You don’t need to put ALL those things on your plate at EVERY meal. Please see the meal template link for more.

      As for hunter gatherers, many humans (and probably most reading this site) are not actually acquiring food this way. Making a historical re-enactment out of Paleo gets pretty tricky.

      Reply
  10. Julie

    Hi Steph,

    I have a preety small stomach as I only need to eat a soup to get full or half a normal person size plate. If I listen to my body statiaty signal and stop eating when I’m full , I’ll get hungry 2-3 hours later. And if I follow your advice and eat so I can get through to 4-5 hours without being hungry then I over eat and feel bloated with my stomach sticking out.

    What do you recommend in that case, is it better to let the digestive system work much more once you have eaten and get a break later or eat smaller meals but have it work every 2-3 hours? thanks alot for your input!
    Julie

    Reply
    1. Steph Post author

      Hi Julie,

      Is there a reason why you say your stomach is so small? It’s hard for me to say without knowing if there’s a size difference.Thanks!

      Reply
      1. Julie

        Hey Steph,

        I just say that because I get full very fast, I only have to eat like 2 eggs in the morning with nothing else and I’m already full. Plus one other thing is I did have an ultrasound a few years ago and the technician did say I had smaller than normal organs. So when I try to eat more, I feel bad, bloated, gassy and it leads to constipation (sorry for the TMI) Hope that clarifies it ! thanks!

        Reply
        1. Steph Post author

          Hi Julie,

          Makes sense. Sorry if I asked you something really personal there. Everyone is individual, and I do think that portion sizes become habit for us, too. My point in writing this article is that it’s a starting point for people first coming to Paleo who are confused about what to eat. Two eggs and being full still just doesn’t sound right to me but if you’re fine and healthy and managing it well, fine by me :)

          Steph

          Reply
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  12. Zaza

    Thank you for this article. I’m on Day 36, round 2 of whole30. I’m looking for work on portion : it had be difficult with big heat we had last week. I was hungry but when I ate, I couldn’t eat normally and finally ate half my body needs. As a result, I was hungry early after and when heat decreased in day, need to eat before dinner :-/ it looked like cravings some days. I’m doing my second round to work on it and try to eat even if heat is horrible. Do you have advice ?
    (Sorry for my poor level in English, French is my native language)

    Reply
    1. Steph Post author

      The hot weather can definitely depress appetite. Do the best you can, and maybe when it’s hot eat smaller portions more often. It’s generally not something I recommend because it’s hard to manage eating 6+ meals a day, but on occasion, probably not harmful.

      Reply
  13. Laura

    I’m a diabetic (controlled through diet). Last year I could not go 4 hours without eating or I’d have a low blood sugar episode. I was eating a “healthy” diet following the new plate recommendations. I also have thyroid issues and I was tired all of the time and just generally felt like crap. I started following the paleo diet last fall and I can now easily go 6 hours without eating. I have a lot more energy and feel a whole lot better. I’ve lost some of the weight I need to lose, but my body is still very good at holding on to it, so I still have more that needs to come off.

    Reply
    1. Candace Ricciardi

      Laura,

      I am so glad you’ve had some healthy successes in finding Paleo. I wish you all the best on your continued journey. :)

      Reply
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  15. meaghan

    Calories in/out has basically been debunked? Hardly. In fact, most health professionals (paleo and non) agree that calories DO matter. There have been people who have eaten nothing but sweet potatoes, McDs, twinkies, etc and still lost weight. Is it healthy? No. But that’s not the point. To lose weight for 99% of people, your body must be in a calorie deficit. As you mention, there are a lot of women who come off of near starvation diets (1200cal a day) and they need to get their metabolism back to normal. And as far as eating 3-1204918 times a day? Totally up to the individual. I know many fit/healthy people who enjoy just eating smaller meals throughout the day and don’t like the feeling of stuffing themselves. Me personally, I eat 3 decent sized meals a day with a preworkout snack half way through the day. People just need to figure out what works for them. When I was doing paleo (whatever that technically means nowadays anyway) I was massively undereating and as an athlete, way underfed on carbs. I now eat way more carbs and practice IIFYM. I eat nutrient dense foods but don’ freak out about eating some Talenti now and then or a little pizza every once and a while.

    Reply
    1. Steph Post author

      I think you misunderstood my point, Meaghan. Do 1200 calories of processed carbohydrate the same effect on the body as 1200 calories of steak, for example? No. Does caloric restriction “work” in the sense that people can lose “weight”? Sure. They also lose muscle mass and majorly eff up their hormones. It’s quite possible to not restrict calories and lose fat. Very, very possible. Please read this for a start: http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1871695.

      Also, here’s more against calories in, calories out (CICO): http://www.caloriegate.com/calories-in-calories-out/11-experts-demolish-the-calories-in-calories-out-cico-model-of-obesity. And: http://caloriesproper.com/?p=1848 with plenty of primary sources cited for you to read. Unfortunately, we still have an obesity epidemic on our hands in this country because the CICO mentality fails to address WHAT our calories come from as being just as important or even moreso than simple energy balance.

      It’s good that you don’t have any food sensitivities to ice cream and the junk foods advocated by many IIFYM folks. Not everyone is that lucky!

      Reply
    2. Steph Post author

      Also, to your point about carbs: it’s a common issue that many athletes are underconsuming them. That’s one of my main messages. Unfortunately, the reason a lot of people restrict is because they know they can push body fat lower if they cut back.

      It’s possible to eat enough carbs while still following a smart paleo template with correct modifications.

      Reply
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  19. Carol

    I’ve printed out the Whole30 meal plan. For the fats, I’m guessing it’s one or the other, not the whole list at a meal. Is that correct?

    Reply
    1. Steph Post author

      Hi Carol….yes, aim for 1-2 thumbfuls of solid / liquid fat, 1/2-1 avocado, 1 closed handful of nuts, or an open handful of olives / coconut flakes per meal.

      Reply

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