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Getting a Grip on Waist Management

By: Brooke Douglas, R.D, C.D.

Do you know your waist size? You should because it is one of the most accurate predictors of diabetes, heart attack and stroke. That’s because the build-up of fat cells around your middle produce chemicals that start low-grade inflammation throughout your body. Inflammation to heal a cut on your finger is good. Inflammation inside your body is not good.

More than 8 out of every 10 people who lose weight will gain it back within 5 years. As we know all too well, America is a land of excess. Nowhere do we see that more clearly than in the food available to us at vending machines, an office party, a school event, a fast food drive-thru and sit down restaurants (not to mention all of the excessive ‘nibbling’ that goes on in our own homes!)

Overeating and spending too much time ‘sedentary’ are the two main reasons that people become overweight and obese. The average woman needs up to 1,800 – 2,000 calories per day for weight maintenance, the average man needs around 2,200 – 2,500 calories. To lose weight safely, 500 fewer calories are recommended daily.

Often weight gain is gradual, with the scale creeping up 1 pound here or there, resulting in steady weight gain over a period of years. For many of us, those 100 calories are the result of eating larger portions than we need. Did you know that only 100 extra calories per day will add up to a 10-lb weight gain in just one year?

With a little practice, you can take one look at a plate and see how many servings you have on it. For example, one portion of meat is about the size of a deck of cards. A medium potato is about the size of a computer mouse. If what you eat is double or triple standard portions, you are eating double or triple the calories you need. Read the information that follows to learn more about normal-sized portions of common foods.


A recommended portion is 3−4 ounces of beef, chicken, or fish or a piece of meat about the size of a deck of cards. A meat portion this size usually has around 200−250 calories. Most restaurant steaks are 8−12 oz, containing two to three times the calories you need (up to 750 calories.) Remember, this does not include the sides, bread, dessert, and drinks you eat with that meal.


Breads and cereals, especially 100% whole wheat breads and cereals, are delicious and nutritious. An average portion is one slice of bread, one small roll, or ½-1 cup of cereal and contains about 80 calories. If you eat a foot-long sub from your favorite sub shop, you may get more than four to six servings of bread in one meal or 320−480 calories, just from the bread on your sandwich.

And what about breakfast breads, such as bagels and muffins? They often are double or triple the size of a normal portion and double or triple the calories of course.


Do you enjoy a soda every now and then? Or do you drink a 20 fluid ounces of cola a few times a day? It is easy to overlook drinks as a source of extra calories. A 12-fl-oz regular soda has about 150 calories. Every time you drink a 20 fl oz of regular soda, you are drinking 250−300 calories!

A normal portion of juice is ¾ cup or 6 fl oz and contains about 75 calories, depending on the juice. If you pour your juice into a large glass, you may drink far more calories than you think.


The recommended size of a portion of pasta is ½ cup cooked or the amount of pasta that would fit into a cupped hand. A serving this size has about 80−90 calories. A plate of pasta served by most restaurants is three to four times larger. You might get 250−300 calories in just your pasta.

Snack foods

It is so easy to open those snack food bags and keep dipping into them without realizing exactly what you are eating. Try to eat only the amount of chips or snacks that you can put in a cupped hand. If it is too hard for you to eat a small amount after opening a bag, consider buying individually bagged snack foods, as long as you eat just one portion.

Super-sized portions

Fast-food portions sometimes are reasonable, if you choose the small version of sandwiches and fries. However, the medium and large portions are bigger than what you need. If you decide to “super-size,” you are experiencing the ultimate in portion distortion. Some fast-food burgers with more than one meat patty have more than 1000 calories in the sandwich alone! That does not include the fries or the drink. If you must eat fast food, try to stick to lower-calorie one-patty sandwiches, a small order of fries (or better yet, order fruit) and a diet drink to save more than half the calories.

Consider these ‘non-food’ tips to help you get a grip on your waist management for good!

  1. Think of it as a permanent change in your life, rather than as a diet
  2. Make sure that your weight loss goals are reasonable and that you believe you are able to maintain them for the long haul—a loss of just 5%-10% of body weight can have a huge impact on your health
  3. Focus on making small changes, rather than saying, “I am going to eat completely differently”
  4. Seek treatment if you are a binge eater—weight cycling is more common in binge eaters
  5. Never lose more than 2 lb/week, and never eat less than 1200-1500 calories/day
  6. Consider meeting with a registered dietitian, such as Brooke Douglas, R.D., C. D. at Education about nutrition and one-on-one nutrition ‘coaching’ and counseling are a key to permanent weight loss.
  7. Learn healthful ways to avoid emotional eating
  8. Exercise regularly to help build muscle, burn calories, stop cravings, and increase “feel good” endorphins
  9. Keep a food journal—many people are amazed by how much all of the little “bites” add up to by the end of the day

When it comes to ‘waist’ management you need to know your waist size! Therefore, first thing in the morning, after you’ve gone to the bathroom, disrobe, start a measuring tape at your belly button and loop it around your middle, keeping the tape level all the way. Suck in like you’re trying to impress someone at the beach but don’t hold your breath. As you exhale, note the number.

Aim for these numbers:

Women: 32.5 inches or less

Men: 35 inches or less

Danger: Your health risks skyrocket for women at 35 inches and men at 40 inches

One more aspect of ‘waist management’ is the old saying of ‘you’ve got to move it in order to lose it.’ The longer you sit, the greater your appetite. Those of us who are quite sedentary (you know who you are) are usually 20% hungrier than those who moved more during the day. Apparently, being still for long periods triggers the release of ghrelin, a hormone that ups your appetite.

If you’ve got a desk job, get up and move around every 30 minutes. Turn off the television and take a walk. Put your computer on stand-by and go wash your car or rake some leaves. Stand instead of sit and the doctor’s office. Go to the dry-cleaners that you have to walk-in, not the dry-cleaners with a drive-thru. When watching your favorite television show – do sit ups, push-ups or jumping jacks on the commercials….in other words find ways to spend less of your time as ‘sedentary’ time!

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