The last time you dined out at a restaurant did you carefully scan the menu, looking for the healthiest option, or at least something that wasn’t going to make you wish you had worn looser clothing? You might have gone with the grilled chicken instead of the fried, or maybe you had the pasta primavera instead of the alfredo. Your plate arrived and it was pleasantly full, beckoning you to enjoy every last healthy morsel. The problem is that even the healthiest options on a typical restaurant menu often carry a caloric price tag of at least half, if not more, of your recommended daily calories. The problem isn’t necessarily the foods you are choosing, but rather the size of the portions on your plate.
It is no secret that we have an obesity epidemic on our hands, and so many of us are constantly on the search for a new way to shed unwanted pounds and keep them off. The unfortunate truth is that most “diets” fail regardless if you wanted to lose ten pounds or fifty. When we look at this problem realistically, we know that it is because a healthy attitude about food needs to be a lifelong habit, and diets typically only address the issue for the short term. People with the healthiest attitudes about food, and the healthiest bodies, tend to favor moderation over deprivation. This means that they have discovered the secret to enjoying healthy, nourishing food while still being able to have the occasional indulgence, and it is all about portion control.
Portion control is such a major player in our mindset about food, that researchers have devoted many hours trying to figure out the psychology behind our preference for larger portion sizes, and here is just a sampling of what they have discovered;
- Our mind is trained to recognize a full plate as being satisfying, regardless of the size of the plate. The standard restaurant plate is twelve to fourteen inches and needs to hold some pretty hefty portion sizes to look full. Research says that larger plates cause us to consume nearly fifty percent more calories than when we dine off of smaller plates.
- We need limits. We simply have a difficult time of eyeballing a proper portion size. You know that dish of candy that is out on your counter or on your desk? You are likely to eat approximately seventy percent more of that candy in a single serving than if you had to make the effort to get it out of a cupboard or a drawer. The combination of accessibility and the subconscious perception that the dish holding the candy is a single serving size contribute to the tendency to overeat.
- We are still evolving. Most of us don’t give much thought to where our next meal will be coming from. We live in a society where we constantly have instant access to food. The problem is that our brains have not yet caught up. We still have a tendency to eat a larger portion size just in case we have to wait awhile until the next meal. We also tend to favor larger portions of poor snack choices rather than single servings of fruits or vegetables. We know that in the long term, the produce offers a more nutritionally complete choice that will benefit our future health, however our minds are mainly concerned with the here and now and which food is going to immediately satisfy hunger, cravings and caloric needs.
- We have an unrealistic idea of what a correct portion size is. The plate of pasta that you serve up at home is likely two to three times the actual correct portion size. The same is true for so many other types of foods. The bagel from your local sandwich shop is actually two serving sizes and is probably smeared with three portions of cream cheese. It is no wonder that we have completely lost touch with reality when it comes to portion control.
If you’re frustrated because you eat healthy and exercise, yet still can’t seem to drop any pounds, the problem is likely with your portion sizes. For example, the proper portion size for a baked potato is about the size of a computer mouse. When was the last time you had a baked potato that small? The typical baked potato is at least twice that size, so even if you are skipping all of the fat laden toppings, you are still overeating in increments of one to two hundred calories at a time. You might be surprised to know that the average slice of pizza contained about 500 calories in the 1980s, but now that total can easily top 800. The typical serving of soda was only about 80 calories thirty years ago. Now, it reaches near 250. Over the course of months and years, this is going to result in added pounds and added health issues, regardless of your healthy food choices. The trick to getting control of your portions has two components. The first is learning to recognize what a proper portion looks like and the second is learning to be satisfied with proper portions.
Let’s begin with a rundown of what the correct portions sizes are for a variety of foods. Pay attention to the visual clues listed. You might not be able to measure out every portion, but you will have better portion control if you can visualize what a single serving is supposed to look like.
- Meat, Fish or Poultry: 3 ounces of protein counts as one portion. This much meat will be about the size of a deck of cards.
- Pasta and Rice: A half cup of these grains are similar in size to a decent scoop of ice cream. A full cup will be similar to the size of your closed fist.
- Cheese: A one ounce serving of cheese will look like dice, or a slice that is the length of your thumb.
- Fresh Fruit: A serving of an apple, pear, orange or basically any other fruit is similar to the size of a baseball.
- Cooked Vegetables: One portion equals one fist.
- Fresh Salad: A plate of healthy greens should measure the same as two fists put together side by side.
- Baked Potato: Is the size of a desktop computer mouse.
- Butter: A teaspoon of butter is the size of one game playing die.
- Dressings, sauces, peanut butter: A two tablespoon serving will be about the size of a golf ball.
- Chocolate: An ounce of chocolate will be about the size of a matchbook or dental floss container.
- Bagel: A single serving bagel is the size of a hockey puck.
- Pancake: One serving of this breakfast treat should be the size of a CD.
- Snack Food: A serving of popcorn, chips, pretzels or nuts should fit comfortably in the palm of your hand.
Now that you know what a true portion size is supposed to look like, the next step is training yourself to be satisfied with portions sizes that might be considerably less than what you are used to eating. You don’t have to feel like you are being put on a restrictive diet in order to learn portion control. In fact, your mindset about it is a big determining factor in how successful you will be in achieving control of your portions. This is definitely a case of using the power of optimism to help you achieve your goals. What you need to do is change your attitude and perception of portion sizes while you are changing your habits. Like any change, this might be difficult at first, so I have compiled a list of tips and tricks to help you get a handle on portion control once and for all.
- If you don’t already own them, invest in a set of accurate measuring cups and possibly a food scale. These are essential for really understanding the size of a single portion. I know, measuring cups sound pretty unexciting. So, search around and find a set that is actually beautiful or matches your kitchen décor. Keep them out on the counter and devote them only for measuring portion sizes.
- Sometimes when you feel hungry or unsatisfied after eating, you might just be thirsty. Begin each meal with a glass of water a few minutes before you begin eating.
- While adjusting to actual portion sizes, use healthy, low caloric foods to fill in your plate. When you are accustomed to an entire bowl of pasta, a serving the size of your fist is likely to leave you wanting more. Fill in the gap with extra portions of vegetables.
- Change up your dinnerware. Try eating off of smaller plates and bowls to trick your brain into thinking that you have actually eaten more. Also, there are some interesting theories about the color of our dishes and how much food we consume off of them. Research shows that we are less likely to overeat when there is a high color contrast between food and the dish that it is being eaten off of. So, have that ice cream but eat it out of a bright red or blue bowl, and skip the white plate the next time you make up a batch of your famous risotto.
- Speaking of plates and bowls; use them. It might seem a waste to dirty a dish just for a serving of potato chips or popcorn, but eating straight out of the bag is going to result in consuming a larger portion and significantly more calories. Using a plate for these foods sets a limit to how much you can eat. A bag or box of snack food is practically a limitless serving size so avoid eating out of them at all costs.
- If you are like me, you fall into the trap of thinking that anything in liquid form is free from calories or the associated consequences of overindulgence. Many of us drink away our daily caloric allowance rather than fueling our bodies with nutrient rich, filling foods. You don’t need to skip the drink altogether, but try drinking out of a taller glass, which has been shown to trick your brain into thinking it is actually a larger portion size.
- Take the time to actually enjoy your food and limit distractions while eating. This means moving away from desk when you eat lunch and not plopping down in front of the television for dinner. Distractions cause us to overeat because we lose touch with our innate sense of satiety.
- Let’s say you come home after a hectic day and just want to throw together a quick meal without worrying too much about measuring out portion sizes. After all, hasn’t the day been hard enough? There is a simple solution to this problem. Try doing a little meal prep earlier in the week. Wash, trim or cut fruit and vegetables, and divide them up into appropriate portion sizes before you actually need or want to eat them. The same is true for leftovers. Instead of throwing the entire remains of dinner in a single container, try dividing it up into smaller, single portion servings.
- Wear tighter fitting clothing. You know how you feel after a big family holiday dinner? That feeling that you just want to loosen up your clothing and take a nap? You probably avoid tight fitting clothing for just such occasions. Take a cue from this and dress to encourage proper portion sizes. Go ahead and wear that outfit that doesn’t forgive the next time you go out to dinner with your friends. It will help you stick to a proper serving instead of overindulging.
- When you dine out, automatically visualize what a true portion of your meal looks like and separate it from the rest of your food. Immediately ask for a to-go container for the rest and pack it up right away. If you don’t see it you won’t be tempted to eat it.
- Learning portion control isn’t about deprivation because guess what? Sweet and other delicious things have suggested portion sizes also; they just aren’t as large as we might wish that they were. So, go ahead and have your dessert or special treat, just be mindful of how much you are eating or better yet, share with a friend or two.
Mastering portion control is one of the most important things you can do to lose weight, or just be healthier in general. There are other perks too, such as saving you money, keeping your blood sugar level, helping you feel more satiated and developing a healthy relationship with food that can last a lifetime. Of all of the things that you can do for your health, learning portion control is one of the easiest and most effective. Go grab those measuring cups and get started!