Staying healthy and the battle to lose weight can both depend on controlling our food and fitness choices. When cooking for ourselves, portion control meals are easier, but when eating out, we’re subject to the big increases in portion size which have affected the restaurant industry in recent decades.1,2 Given that 36% of Americans eat fast food on a given day, with 72% opting for a fast-food lunch, consumers are left at the mercy of food vendors who practice ‘value sizing,’ equating large amounts with good value.3,4
It’s not just restaurant food that has ballooned in size and calories.5 The average snack product grew 60% larger between 1977 and 1996, and even the average size of our dinner plates has increased by 20% since 1900.6,7 As we navigate an environment filled with plentiful, affordable calories, successful weight loss will depend on more than just healthy food choices.
A Healthy Diet Depends On Food Choices AND Portion Control
Our food behaviors are informed by lots of psychological habits. Through the ‘appropriateness mechanism,’ we assume that a given serving of food is a suitable amount, and this shapes our expectations for the future. Larger portions induce us to eat more and to take larger bites.8
In times of plenty, our bodies are programmed by evolution to guard against future shortages by stocking up, so it’s natural to eat almost everything to which we have access. However, humans didn’t evolve while eating our modern high-fat, high-carb diet, and we aren’t likely to suffer food scarcity in the winter, so gorging on large portions can quickly derail your weight loss plans.
Know Your Ideal Serving Size: Portion Control And Weight Loss
Grab a food package and take a look at the label. It’ll give you a ‘serving size’ expressed in cups, ounces, or grams. In many cases, this will seem to be the recommended amount of this food to eat in one sitting, but this is rarely true, and many consumers ignore these figures, anyway. Instead, they serve themselves an unmeasured ‘portion’ which can be of any size, depending on preference and hunger level, other meal components, peer influence, and past precedent.
Government guidelines do exist, but without a proper system of control, we’re likely to inadvertently eat larger portions and take in more calories and carbohydrates than we truly intend. This phenomenon can severely impact a weight loss program unless a structure is put in place.
Count Calories To Avoid Overeating: Portion Sizes Vary With Certain Foods
Obviously, a grilled chicken breast (protein) and a small salad (veggies) have completely different nutritional content and calories, despite being roughly the same size on the plate. A good ‘rule of thumb’ to govern portion sizes is to use… well, your thumb.
- High-carb foods (cereal, pasta, rice, cookies, chips): a portion the size of your fist or cupped hand.
- Lean meat (less than 10g fat per 3-ounce serving, like skinless chicken, trimmed pork chops): a portion the size of your palm.
- Vegetables (roasted, boiled, or grilled vegetables and salads): 1-2 portions the size of your fist.9
Another way to control food portions is to use your plate as a guide. Divide it into four, so that half your plate is low-starch vegetables and salad, a quarter is protein (lean meat, sustainable fish, soy, seeds, nuts, legumes), and the remaining quarter is complex carbs (rice, oats, potatoes).10 You could also use a portion control plate with specific sections.
Simple Ways To Control Portions
- Read labels and be aware of how many ounces a ‘serving’ or ‘portion’ should be, as well as the calories per serving.
- Remember that ‘serving size’ is not an official recommendation.
- Take calorie warnings on fast food seriously. Burgers and pizza aren’t poisonous, but their effects are best controlled by thinking about amount and frequency.11,12
- Try to understand what your body is asking for and why. Then, you can meet that need exactly. Don’t skip meals; a rumbling stomach makes you likely to overeat in order to compensate.13
- Keep healthy snacks around:
- Replace the cookies in your jar with a high-protein snack.
- Keep washed, cut crudites and dips (like hummus) in the fridge.
- If you have a candy bowl, fill it with fruit instead.
- Replace carbs with vegetables as meal ‘fillers’ (veggie salad instead of pasta salad).
- Make carbs the ‘topper,’ not the main element of a dish.
- Add chia seeds to breakfast and smoothies. They provide soluble fiber which supports digestion. Try adding more squash, beans, fruit, flax, and buckwheat for the same reason.14
- Set out dishes of vegetables to pass around while eating. If they’re visible, they’ll get eaten, because we’re programmed to eat more of what’s in front of us.
- Adding capsaicin, ginger, and other spices may help reduce your calorie intake.15,16
- Instead of dessert, try a flavorful fruit tea.
- Drink some water 15-30 minutes before eating. The new watery bulk in your stomach makes you feel a little fuller before you begin; also, dehydration makes people eat more.17
- Begin with a soup to achieve a similar effect. Try good-quality beef broth with hearty veg.
- Put veggies on your plate first, aiming for fiber.18
- Low protein diets make us more likely to seek calories, so plan for a palm-sized piece of lean meat or other protein. There’s nothing wrong with a snack, provided it’s aimed at reducing your intake during the next meal. Aim for 5-15g protein in each snack.19
- Use a plate rather than eating from a package or container. This makes it easier to see the size of the portion. Using a food scale also helps clarify the weight of each portion.
- Use measuring cups, especially for oils and dairy; add milk before coffee, so you can see the amount more clearly. Use the same cups, bowls, and plates so your measurements are consistent.
- Add measurement marks to drinking glasses. Then, use ice to make your drink look bulkier.
- Using smaller plates makes the portion look more filling and may reduce overeating. Specially-designed portion-control plates and containers are also available.
- Eat slowly and mindfully. The opposite is called mindless, distracted, or unconscious eating.20
- Try to judge when you’re 80% full and stop eating in advance of the ’full’ signal, as it can take 20 minutes to arrive.
- Put your knife and fork down between bites.
- Put on some relaxing music to help you deliberately slow your eating.
- Include food that requires unwrapping or shelling to slow you down more.
- Eating with others makes us less prone to distraction.21
- Chew your food well before swallowing. This helps extract nutrients and can reduce your calorie intake.22
- It’s best not to eat in front of the TV, as the distraction can lead to overeating.23
- Silence your phone, too.24
- It’s preferable not to eat at your desk while playing a game.25
- Bring your own lunch to work. This lets you control portion size and amount of calories.
- Ask for a child’s or half portions, order a starter instead of a main, or share.
- Be aware that restaurants are increasingly overserving their customers.26
- Survey the whole buffet before deciding what to eat.
- Ask for salad dressing on the side, so you know how much you’re adding (or request a simple dressing of balsamic vinegar or olive oil).
- Buy smaller portions: pizza by the slice, not by the pie.
- Set aside the final third of your meal as leftovers. You don’t have to clean your plate – just put the rest in the fridge.
- Journal about your diet. Log your calories, fats, and carbs. Treat it like a medical journey or an experiment that requires good data.
Create A Plan, And Achieve Your Weight Loss Goals
When it comes to portion control, a little planning, some awareness, and a carefully consistent approach can yield important results. Try reining in the portion sizes and remain aware of how many calories you eat per serving to enhance your weight loss program and bring you closer to your goals.