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How to Plan a Weight-loss Diet

Dietary Guidelines

Serving Size Guide
If you're away from home and can't measure your food, these will help you estimate portion size.
  • 1 cup is about the size of a baseball or tennis ball

  • 1/2 cup is about the size of 1/2 of a baseball or tennis ball

  • 2 tablespoons is about the size of a ping-pong ball

  • 1 teaspoon is about the size of one die

  • 1-1/2 ounces of cheese is about the size of 6 stacked dice

  • 3 ounces of meat, fish, or poultry is about the size and thickness of a deck of cards

  • 1 medium potato or other fruit or vegetable is about the size of a medium adult fist

A healthy eating plan that will help you lose weight is one that includes a wide variety of foods from all the major food groups (fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, and meat and beans). Eating a variety of foods will help prevent diet boredom, and it will ensure that you cover all your nutritional bases. The federal government encourages this approach to diet and to weight loss through the USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The Guidelines, revised in 2005, are the basis for the government's food and nutrition programs and policies and are reflected in the Nutrition Facts panel on food products. The Guidelines recommend that your diet emphasize fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Foods from these three groups, along with fat-free or low-fat milk products, should form the foundation of your daily diet. Protein-rich foods, such as lean meat, poultry, fish, and beans, are also essential. However, the typical American diet includes more than adequate amounts of protein.

By describing servings in familiar household measurements such as cups and ounces, the Dietary Guidelines have resolved a major source of consumer confusion. The previous guidelines talked about numbers of servings, but it wasn't clear what constituted a serving. Now the Guidelines say to eat two cups of fruit. No more guessing about how much makes a serving and how many servings you should eat.

The following are equivalents to the quantities recommended in the Guidelines:

Vegetables and fruits

One-half cup of fruit or vegetables is equivalent to:

  • 1/2 cup cut-up raw or cooked fruit or vegetable

  • 1/2 cup fruit or vegetable juice

  • 1 cup leafy salad greens

One ounce-equivalent is the same as:
  • 1/2 cup cooked rice or pasta or cooked cereal

  • 1 cup cereal flakes

  • 1 slice bread

  • 1 very small muffin (1 ounce)

  • 1 ounce dry pasta or rice

One cup milk is equivalent to:
  • 1 cup milk, yogurt, or fortified soy milk

  • 1-1/2 ounces natural cheese such as Cheddar

  • 2 ounces processed cheese
Meat and Beans

One ounce-equivalent is the same as:
  • 1 ounce lean meat, poultry, or fish

  • 1 egg

  • 1/4 cup cooked dry beans or tofu (count as a protein or vegetable, not both)

  • 1 tablespoon peanut butter

  • 1/2 ounce nuts or seeds

One teaspoon equivalent is:
  • 1 teaspoon soft margarine

  • 1 tablespoon low-fat mayonnaise

  • 2 tablespoons light salad dressing

  • 1 teaspoon vegetable oil

All cooking oils plus soft margarines that do not contain any trans fats are included in this category. Because these oils contain vitamin E and essential fatty acids, they are not part of the discretionary calorie allowance below.

Discretionary calories

The allowance for discretionary calories will depend on the specific calorie-level eating plan you are following. Check the label for the number of grams of sugar listed. The same goes for fat; check the labels of food products for the number of grams of fat.

If you have more questions about the daily guidelines, check out our article on how to plan a diet based on the USDA weight-loss guidelines. Now let's consider an important facet of dieting: how to shop for food. It's in the next section.