Feature articles

UK portion guidance, 'Find your balance-get portion wise'

Increasing portion sizes have been described as a contributing factor to excess energy consumption and weight gain. Unlike the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating and New Zealand Eating and Activity Guidelines, the British Eatwell Guide (that looks like a plate) has limited quantitative food group advice. The British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) set out to provide portion size guidance for a comprehensive range of foods and has produced a publicly available set of resources called ‘Find your balance-get portion wise’ available at nutrition.org.uk

Bridget Benelam and Martin Wiseman from the University of Southampton are the authors of a journal article published in the journal of the British Nutrition Foundation, Nutrition Bulletin.

The portions recommended are based on an average adult with a daily energy allowance of 2000 calories - the amount estimated for an average, healthy weight, adult woman.

General suggested portions

  • Fruit and vegetables: 5+ portions per day
  • Starchy carbohydrates: 3-4 portions per day
  • Beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins: 2-3 portions per day
  • Dairy and alternatives: 2-3 portions per day
  • Unsaturated spreads and oils: small amounts

Different portions for different eating occasions

One feature different to other portion guidance systems is that the recommendations for two food groups (starchy carbohydrates and protein foods) include more specific options based on meal size, i.e.

Starchy carbohydrates

Less than 200kcal- for lighter meals and breakfast

e.g. 2 biscuits (45g) shredded wheat type cereal 150kcals

More than 200kcal- mostly for main meals

e.g. 200g roast potatoes (about 4 small) 322kcal; 180g cooked pasta 236kcal

Less than 150kcal- snacks

e.g. 1 crumpet (50g) 104kcal; 3 rice cakes (21g) 81kcal

Choose 3-4 portions of starchy carbohydrate foods a day – you could have one with each meal and could also include snack-sized portions. Those that are 200kcal or more tend to be the things you would have as a main meal, and those that are less than 200kcal for lighter meals or breakfast.”

Protein foods

Less than 200kcal – for lighter meals and breakfasts

120g grilled chicken breast 178kcal; 2 eggs 172kcal; 100g cooked lean mince 157kcal

More than 200kcal – mostly for main meals

130g Grilled rump steak 310kcal; 2 meat sausages grilled 265kcal

This grouping by energy content and meal size is a more flexible approach and sends the message that portions can and should differ according to the eating occasion.

Use of household and hand measures

The resource provides practical household and hand measures as an alternative to weighing foods, for example:

Examples of portion size- summary list

  • 2 handfuls of dried pasta shapes or rice (75g)
  • A bunch of spaghetti the size of a £1 coin, measured using your finger and thumb (75g)
  • the amount of cooked pasta or rice that would fit in two hands cupped together (180g)
  • A baked potato about the size of your fist (220g)
  • About 3 handfuls of breakfast cereal (40g)
  • A piece of grilled chicken breast about half the size of your hand (120g)
  • A piece of cheddar cheese about the size of two thumbs together (30g)
  • About 1 tablespoon of peanut butter (20g)
  • About 3 teaspoons of soft cheese (30g)

For each portion size we have given the weight in grams, the calorie content and a practical way of measuring it, unless it is something that comes ready portioned like a bagel, a sausage or a can of tuna…If you use the hand measures we give, portion sizes will vary with the size of your hands and so, generally, bigger people will automatically get bigger portions and smaller people will get smaller portions.”

Differences with Australian Guide to Healthy Eating (AGHE)

The British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) portions are slightly different than the AGHE recommended serve sizes. The most obvious difference is the size of the “starchy carbohydrate” portions, which are larger than the AGHE “grain (cereal)” foods. However, the daily recommended servings are also fewer: 3-4 portions in the UK vs 6 serves a day in the AGHE. And, BNF include potatoes with grain foods whereas in the AGHE potatoes are in with vegetables. Helpfully for cooks, dry/raw weights and measures are given for grain foods such as rice and pasta as well as cooked.

Comparison of British and Australian portion guidance

Composite foods

Composite foods (foods that are made up of more than one food group) have their own section in the full portion list. This is helpful because many meals contain more than one food group, posing a challenge for tracking food group intake. Practical cooking advice is also given, including how to incorporate convenience products in healthy way.

The example of such spaghetti Bolognese is given:

  • “Allow 75g uncooked spaghetti per person, or more if you are cooking for people with higher calorie needs or you want leftovers.
  • …about 125g raw mince (1/4 of a 500g pack) but you could halve this in a dish which has lots of other ingredients and you could replace some or all of the meat with meat-free mince or pulses.
  • Add plenty of vegetables- a Bolognese sauce often includes onion, tomatoes, carrots and celery- but add any others that you like. If you’re using a cook-in sauce, you can boost the dish by adding extra vegetables- you could try ready prepared, canned or frozen vegetables to save time.”

Treats (foods high in fat, salt or sugars and sugary drinks)

The summary graphic does not include treats but specific guidance is given in the booklet and full size portion list, i.e

 “…if you do eat them than its best to keep portion sizes small- around 100-150kcal.

For example:

  • a small chocolate biscuit bar
  • 4 small squares of chocolate
  • 2 small biscuits
  • a small multi-bag of crisps
  • a mini-muffin
  • a small chocolate mousse

… sugary drinks are included in this group- these can contribute a lot of sugar and calories- its best to choose drinks that don’t contain added sugar.”

How the resource was developed and funded

The resource development process was independently managed by academics, Public Health England, and UK Department of Health and Social Care but financially supported by several British food companies and food retailers demonstrating successful intersectoral collaboration.


The SRAS have compiled the portion control advice from the Australian Dietary Guidelines into one resource for health professionals to use in their work – ‘Say When’. Download and print it, or order a tearaway pad here.

 NEXT: Policy Paper: Labelling of sugars on packaged foods

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