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7 ways to eat bigger portions while keeping calories low

Choosing foods that have a lot of volume, but are low in calories, will leave you more satisfied.
Image: Omelet
Add volume to an omelet with non-starchy veggies like raw spinach, which has just three calories in a half cup.HandmadePictures / Shutterstock / HandmadePictures

Feeling full after you eat a meal is key to successfully losing weight. But that is easier said than done. We’ve all measured out one serving size of cereal or pasta and looked down at a seemingly empty bowl thinking, That’s all I get?! And if you’ve been used to loading up your plate, cutting back your portions can feel really restrictive. Cue: the cravings and sneaking back into the kitchen for seconds and thirds … and suddenly even a healthy meal isn’t so healthy anymore.

“When you eat calorie-dense foods — that is, foods that pack a lot of calories in a small portion — your stomach doesn't feel as full,” says Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “The feeling of food in the stomach produces hormones that are satiety signals, telling your body you're full. If you eat foods that have a lot of volume, but are low in calories, your stomach feels more full and you feel more satisfied but have consumed fewer calories.”

When you eat calorie-dense foods — that is, foods that pack a lot of calories in a small portion — your stomach doesn't feel as full.

Wish you could eat more for less calories? Here’s how to amp up portions of your favorite foods so you’re saving on calories, but not feeling deprived. Not even a little.


Portion size: 2 eggs

Bulk it up: A two-egg omelet boasts 12 grams of filling protein. But it’s not very large, so add volume to it. “Spinach, mushrooms, zucchini and tomato are all very low in calories, yet high in fiber and water content,” says Hultin. “There are just three calories in a half cup of raw spinach!”

Trail mix

Portion size: ¼ cup

Bulk it up: The typical trail max contains about 175 calories per quarter cup. Many trail mixes combine the protein and healthy fat of nuts and seeds with the fiber from dried fruit. (Let’s not even talk about the ones filled with chocolate candies and sugary dried fruit!) While this combo is nutritious, you’ll likely feel more satisfied by bulking up the mix with popcorn. Add a cup of the air-popped variety for just 31 calories. “Popcorn, which is naturally a whole grain, has so much airy volume you feel like you are getting more,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, author of The Superfood Swap. Here’s a make-your-own combo Blatner likes: combine popcorn with pecans, unsweetened coconut, cacao nibs and pumpkin seeds.


Portion size: About 1 cup cooked

Bulk it up: With smaller pastas — think elbows, farfalle and penne — you’ll get slightly more volume. Think anywhere from a couple of tablespoons to a quarter cup extra. Add even more bulk to your pasta by tossing those noodles with equal parts zoodles (aka zucchini noodles) or spaghetti squash. One cup of zucchini has just 21 calories! Then toss the mixture with ½ cup marinara sauce and add a protein, such as half a cup of chickpeas or 3 ounces of cooked chicken breast. Hello, nice bowl of filling food for just about 400 calories!


Portion size: 3 ounces cooked

Bulk it up: Make the burger larger — and more filling — by using a one-to-one ratio of lean ground beef to mushrooms. “This helps bulk up the burger’s size, and the mushrooms add a umami flavor,” says Toby Amidor, MS, RD, author of The Easy 5-Ingredient Healthy Cookbook. While 3 ounces of cooked 90-percent lean ground beef contains 196 calories, the same amount of Portobello mushrooms has just 25 calories. Load your burger up with plenty of water-filled veggies — think spinach, tomatoes, red onions and even broccoli slaw.


Portion size: ½ cup cooked

Bulk it up: However you’re eating your rice — whether it’s as the base to a stir-fry, a burrito bowl or a rice bowl — add volume by stirring in equal parts cauliflower rice. A half cup of cooked white rice has about 120 calories, while the same amount of cooked cauliflower rice has just 10 calories.

Mac and cheese

Portion size: 1 cup prepared

Bulk it up: Let’s say you whipped up one of those box mixes of good ‘ol macaroni and cheese. That’s about 310 calories in only one cup of food. Triple your serving size by mixing in a couple of cups of cooked veggies — think halved grape tomatoes and sautéed onions, mushrooms and spinach. Skip the oil when you sauté those veggies, using low-sodium vegetable broth or even water instead. When you stir everything together, the vegetables will get coated in the cheesy sauce and pick up plenty of flavor.


Portion size: 2 ounces tequila, 1 ounce Cointreau, 1 ounce lime juice, salt for garnish

Bulk it up: Half a cup of liquid is gonna go pretty fast. “Adding club soda or herbal tea to cocktails gives you more to drink and the added bonus of better hydration,” says Blatner. “So instead of just having a straight margarita, add an equal part of club soda or iced unsweetened citrus tea.”


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