Peter Ardito/Fitness MagazineBy Amanda Pressner
Does squeezing into your workout tights feel like a feat of gymnastics? Before you swear off everything but baby carrots, consider this: The culprit behind weight gain may not be what you're eating, but how much. Since the late '70s, we've added 570 calories a day to our diets, and half of them can be attributed to larger portions, according to research at the University of North Carolina. "Even though today's serving sizes can be more than triple what the USDA recommends, they've become our new normal, and anything smaller can seem puny by comparison," says Lisa R. Young, PhD, RD, a FITNESS advisory board member and the author of The Portion Teller Plan. Fortunately, having strong visual aids, can go a long way toward helping you shift your mind-set. Once you know what right-size portions look like, selecting them will become second nature. The best part? You can downsize your plate -- and your weight -- without giving up the foods you love.
Related: How to Control Your Cravings for Good
Standard size: 3 cups, cooked
Better-for-you size: 1 cup, cooked
Calorie difference: 440
Many restaurants, including Olive Garden and BJ's, offer lunch- or half-size portions. Don't see a smaller serving on the menu? "Ask to be given just one cup of pasta and have the rest boxed up before it's brought to the table," suggests Marge Condrasky, RD, an associate professor at Clemson University. "Special requests are pretty standard nowadays, and most waiters are happy to accommodate them."
Related: The Pasta Lover's Diet: 6 Low-Calorie Recipes
Standard size: 2 ounces
Better-for-you size: 1 ounce
Calorie difference: 154
"Snack sizes are often twice as big as they were 30 years ago," says Michael Jacobson, PhD, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "And even though the labels on the bags may say they serve two or more, many people polish off the entire contents themselves." One of the most popular snacks, potato chips, may contribute more to long-term weight gain than many other foods or drinks: A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that for every additional serving of chips a person consumes daily, they gain nearly two pounds every four years.
Choose popped as opposed to fried chips to get more food (about 23 crisps versus 13) for fewer calories. If you prefer the classic version, opt for a one-ounce package or split a bigger bag with a buddy.
Standard size: 12 ounces, cooked
Better-for-you size: 3 ounces, cooked
Calorie difference: 572
When it comes to beef, most chefs have had a bigger-is-better mentality: Almost half of those surveyed by researchers at Clemson University and Pennsylvania State University admitted to serving 12-ounce strip steaks-- more than double the amount of meat you should eat in a day.
"A lot of chains now offer six-ounce sirloin steaks or filets that cook down to about four and a half ounces and clock in at 350 calories," Young says. Shave 50 to 100 calories off that number by asking the waiter to have yours made with very little or no butter brushed on top.
Standard size: 2 cups, cooked
Better-for-you size: 1/2 cup, cooked
Calorie difference: 308
Order takeout from a Chinese restaurant and your side of steamed rice will contain 400 to 500 (mostly) empty calories. Not only can it crimp your stay-slim efforts, it can also raise your type 2 diabetes risk: According to researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, people who ate five or more servings of white rice a week had a 17 percent greater chance of getting the disease than those who ate virtually none.
Switch to brown rice, which contains six times as much fiber as the refined version. And use a measuring cup to get an accurate sense of how much you're really eating, Young advises. When you're dining out, scoop an amount of rice that's half the size of a tennis ball and leave the rest in the serving dish.
Related: Takeout Fake-Out: Healthy Alternatives to Takeout
Standard size: 6 ounces, cooked
Better-for-you size: 3 ounces, cooked
Calorie difference: 99
We tend to think of boneless, skinless chicken breasts as the ultimate diet food, so it's easy to overlook the fact that many are now two and a half times bigger than they used to be. "We assume that whatever comes in the package is the right amount," Young says. "But some four-pound family packs of chicken, which should actually serve 16 people, contain just six breasts."
Look for labels that say "thin-cut" or "thin-sliced." These chicken breasts tend be sold in four-ounce portions, hitting the USDA-recommended three-ounce mark once they're cooked. Or make your own by splitting the chicken breasts sold in regular packs; simply use a sharp kitchen knife to slice each one in half lengthwise.
Peter Ardito/Fitness Magazine
Standard size: 4 1/2 inches
Better-for-you size: 2 1/2 inches
Calorie difference: 270
Would you start your day with six or seven slices of white bread? "That's the calorie equivalent of a bagel at most chains," says Tanya Zuckerbrot, RD, the author ofThe F-Factor Diet Zuckerbrot. "And that's before it's slathered with cream cheese or butter." Even the average store-bought bagel is about 195 percent bigger than it ought to be, a study in the American Journal of Public Healthfound. Eating the whole thing means you've already put away almost all of your six recommended daily servings of grains.
Both Bruegger's and Au Bon Pain recently began offering Skinny Bagels -- with about 200 calories and 90 calories apiece, respectively -- and Einstein Bros Bagels now sells Bagel Thin Singles, which come in under 160 calories. At the grocery store, opt for Thomas' 110-calorie Bagel Thins or Weight Watchers Original Bagels, with 150 calories plus 9 grams of filling fiber.
More from FITNESS Magazine:
How Many Calories Are in Your Salad?
The Beach Body Cinch and Sculpt Workout
400-Calorie Fat-Fighting Lunch Recipes