Why more is not better?
Everywhere you look, there are signs to “Supersize” or “Value Size” your order of food. When you go out to dinner at a sit-down restaurant, the plate your food is served on is huge and it is usually piled with food. When did portion sizes become this big? Why is this a problem? What is a normal portion size?
A serving size is the suggested amount that you should consume for a particular food. It’s usually calculated by food experts and is listed on a product’s Nutrition Facts, or food label. A portion size is how much food you choose to eat at one time. This is true whether you’re eating in a restaurant, food from a package or meal you made at home. Our country has completely distorted ideas about portion size. We are the only country on the planet that offers such enormous portions. There are two main issues surrounding the portion size problem. The first is our societal views on the relation between size and value. Many fast food restaurants have the option to “supersize” items, which is when you get a larger size or quantity of food for a small additional cost. This is a marketing strategy used to increase how much customers spend while fostering the idea that they are getting more value for their money. The concern with this is that when we have access to more food, we tend to eat more and this means we are ingesting more calories. This is especially problematic since this type of food has virtually no nutritional value. On top of that you probably wouldn’t realize when you’re full. Usually when we are given more food, we’ll eat more of everything and not notice it. Since we don’t feel any fuller and think we’ve gotten a better deal, most of us don’t realize the harm we are causing to our bodies. The problem with portion sizes isn’t just limited to fast food chains. Unfortunately, the size of dinner plates, muffin tins, pizza pans and everything else has increased to keep up with the notion of we are getting more value when something is a larger size. It has gone so far that cars have larger cup holders to accommodate the larger drink sizes. In addition, many sit-down restaurants keep increasing their portion sizes as well in order to compete in today’s market. Some of their meals that are “average” in size actually add up to a whole day’s worth of calories. When comparing portion sizes between 1977 and 1996, it’s easy to see that they have all increased significantly. It’s important to note that obesity increased from around 15% of the American people in 1971 to almost 31% in 1999. This data makes it easy to see that the increase in portion sizes is one of the reasons that our country is currently having an obesity epidemic.
The second problem is our body’s natural response to food. Our bodies have not evolved from thinking that we’re still hunter-gatherers vulnerable to an impending famine. So, when it comes to portion control, your brain isn’t very interested limiting it. The process of deciding how much to eat is controlled by two different systems in our brain. The limbic system is our subconscious and it can be influenced by our emotions. It’s the part that encourages you to partake in a present opportunity to eat rather than waiting for future opportunities. This is the evolutionary part of your brain protecting you. The analytic system is our conscious thought and requires deliberate actions. While there are some people who don’t know if they will have food to eat next month, most of us know that we will. Unfortunately, your analytical, rational thought is frequently canceled out by your limbic system’s subconscious food hoarding approach. Obviously, you are a product of not only both systems, but all of the cultural influences that are pressed upon you. This is why so many Americans have difficulty not overeating.
The other big component that plays a key role in overeating is that we eat mindlessly. Numerous studies have been done about how people consume more food when they are distracted while eating. Given that most people watch television, use their phone or use another electronic device while eating, it’s easy to see how this is contributing to the problem. For the most part, we are aware what and how much we’re supposed to be eating, but we just ignore it. Typically, we aren’t overeating by significant amounts. Usually it is only in 100 or 200 calorie increments because we are unaware of just how much food we are taking in. All of this incremental overconsuming adds up to a weight gain overtime.
One other misconception we have is that if we label a food as “healthy,” then we believe that we can eat limitless quantities of it and not have any consequences. We need to understand that all foods have calories and all calories, healthy or not, add up. This is why portion control is important even with the healthiest foods. If you just cut your portion size down to a what is recommended for any particular food, you’ll probably be hungry and end up overeating later. So, awareness about what types of calories you’re eating is just as important to know as how much you’re eating. We need to be cognizant of the fact that there are hidden and obvious triggers cuing us to eat. On average, we make about 200 choices related to food daily. The key is to make sure that these choices are closer to what our analytical brain, not our instinctive brain, would like. Remember, the goal of being more aware while eating isn’t to make you feel self-conscious or scared of food, but to help you realize what you are putting into your body compared to what it truly needs.
In our world of battling brain systems with too much food everywhere and so many cues to eat, how are you supposed to better control your portion sizes? Modern portion sizes add an extra 50 to 150 calories. While this might not sound like much, keep in mind that an extra 100 calories per day can add an extra 10 pounds of weight to your body in a year. So, even though the idea of portion policing is completely opposite of the concept of a relaxed, balanced, real-world diet in which healthy food choices bring satisfaction without having to worry about quantity, it’s very much a necessity in our current society. It’s understandable that nobody wants to measure and count everything they eat or drink for the rest of their life. The key is to do this long enough to learn appropriate serving and portion sizes. There are several ways that you can do this. The first way is to learn to read food labels. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has created a food label that is printed on most packaged foods. It lists a variety of information and is a good way to find the number of calories in a certain amount of food. Different products have different serving sizes even if it is the same type of food, so always checking the packaging if you are buying a different brand. Serving sizes are usually measured in cups, ounces, grams, pieces, slices, or numbers. A serving size on a food label may be more or less than the amount you should eat, depending on your age, weight, whether you are male or female, and how active you are. Depending on how much you choose to eat, your portion size may or may not match the serving size. It’s essential to note that many packaged foods contain more than a single serving per package. This is why it’s key to pay attention to the number of servings contained in a package, then note the calorie content per serving. The second thing you should do is familiarize yourself with what healthy portions look like. For instance, 1 cup of yogurt, cereal, soup, pasta, ice cream or cut fresh fruit is equal to the size of a baseball, 3 oz. of most cooked meat is equivalent to a deck of cards, 3 oz. of cooked fish is equal to the size of a checkbook, 1 sandwich on regular sliced bread is equal to two decks of cards, a serving of grapes is 15 (size of a light bulb), ¼ cup of raisins is the size of an egg, 1 oz of processed cheese is the size of your thumb, 1 tsp of peanut butter/butter/margarine is the tip of your thumb (from knuckle to tip), 1 oz of pretzels is two handfuls and 1 cup of lettuce or cooked veggies is about the size of a wine glass. Avocados are a great choice to get the healthy fat your body needs. However, they can have up to 400 calories in a whole one, so the suggested serving is 1/5 of the whole fruit. Nuts are also packed with healthy fats, protein and vitamins, but the serving recommendations is only one ounce. One ounce doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s equal to 20-24 almonds (160 calories), 16 cashews (160 calories), 14 walnuts (190 calories), 40-45 pistachios (160 calories) or 28 peanuts (170 calories). Trail mixes are a great super snack that provide a great variety of protein and vitamins, but are also filled with sugar, calories and fat. So, downing whole package is a sure way to be eating several hundred calories in a matter of minutes. A serving is about one handful (1/4 cup) and contains 170 calories. An easy way to remember the difference between teaspoon and tablespoon is that the tip of your finger (from the tip up to the first joint) is a teaspoon and your entire thumb is a tablespoon. Note that you should consume less than 10 percent of your calories daily from added sugars. Added sugars include table sugar, or sucrose, including beet and cane sugars, corn syrup, honey, malt syrup and other sweeteners, such as fructose or glucose, that have been added to food and beverages. Fruit and milk contain naturally-occurring sugars, which are not considered added sugars.
When discussing calories, we must keep in mind that we tend to eat the same volume of food each day, regardless of how many calories it is. This is why choosing lower calorie, but volume dense foods are great because you can eat more of them and taken in less calories. In order to eat less calories when you are consuming higher calorie foods, you have to restrict the amount of food that you’re eating, which means the portions are too small resulting in you being hungry sooner. By eating healthy, lower calorie, but dense foods, you’ll be more effective at sustaining a sense of fullness than you would if you eat smaller portions of higher calorie options. Foods that are low in calorie density help to promote weight loss. Some examples are fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes (beans, peas and lentils). Fruits and vegetables also have a high water content, which helps play a role in weight control because it increases the volume of what you are eating, without adding extra calories. This is similar to fiber, which helps you to feel fuller longer. In any regards, you should eat the fewest amount of high-fat, high-calorie foods, such as desserts, chips, sauces, and prepackaged snacks, that you possibly can.
It’s not enough to know portion sizes, we need to actually regulate them through mindful eating. The best way to do this is by removing distractions and giving conscious thought to what we’re eating. Don’t eat in front of the television, while driving, while using your phone or while you are busy with other activities. Be present by focusing on what you are eating, chew your food thoroughly and fully enjoy the smell and taste of it. By eating slowly your brain can get the message when your stomach is full. This can take 15 minutes or longer. The key is to stop when you’re satisfied, not full. Eat one reasonable sized serving and skip second helpings. If you want more of something, give yourself time to digest to see if you really want more to eat.
In addition to all of this, there are several other things you can do to help manage how much you’re eating. When shopping at the grocery store compare marketplace portions to recommended serving sizes. Usually, it’s more economical to buy supersized bags of food, so when you get home repackage them into smaller containers immediately to avoid overeating. When storing food, think about where it’s located in your home or office. Typically, the amount and type of food you eat will vary depending on their location. Most people are more likely to take and eat something off a fridge or cupboard shelf if it’s at eye level. So, it’s a good idea to arrange your food storage so you see healthy stuff first. If you are hungry and want a snack, portion out one serving of the snack according to the food label and eat that instead of eating straight out of the box or bag. For some people they find it easier to buy snacks, such as fruit or single-serving, prepackaged foods, that are lower in calories in order to not overeat. If you do buy snacks in bulk, it’s helpful divide the items into single-serve, easy to grab containers. If you are making a meal and have made too much, freeze the food you won’t serve or eat right away, so you won’t be tempted to finish the whole thing. The nice thing is if you freeze it in single- or family-sized servings, you’ll have ready-made meals for another day. It is key to eat meals at regular times and not wait hours between meals or skip meals altogether because you will most likely overeat later because you are so hungry. Another way to eat less is by buying and using smaller plates and bowls. A regular dinner plate should be no bigger than 10 inches across. Whatever you choose to eat should fit on the plate. If it doesn’t, don’t eat it. By having the smaller dishes, you will instinctively put less food on them and it will look like a larger amount of food. This holds true even at restaurants. When using smaller plates at a buffet, people take less food, which means less is wasted. At fixed-plate restaurant, it makes the portions look more appealing, which ties into our belief that we are getting more for our money.
As challenging as it is to eat the appropriate portion sizes at home, it’s even more taxing to maintain when you are at a restaurant or in store buying snacks. With restaurants offering enormous plates of food, drink cups often in super large sizes and snacks are being sold in king-sized packages, it’s no wonder we consume far more than we should. Since restaurant portions are so large, an easy way to limit how much you eat is to ask for a to-go box with your meal and put half of it in there when your food is brought to the table. Another great option is to share a meal with a friend or family member. If the restaurant serves complimentary bread or other item, you can ask to have it removed from the table. A helpful tip is to order one or two healthy appetizers or side dishes instead of a whole meal. Remember to always ask for healthier options, such as having meat broiled or grilled instead of fried, having a salad with the dressing on the side or having your vegetables roasted or steamed rather than cooked in butter or oil. If given the choice, always pick the smaller-sized drink, salad or frozen yogurt. Avoid going to all-you-can-eat buffets because you are guaranteed to overeat.
One of the concerns people have is that they believe eating healthier costs more money. This isn’t the case, especially when you consider the cost of all of the health problems that result from not eating right. Some tips to help it be more cost effective are buying fresh fruit and vegetables when they are in season either at the grocery store or a local farmers market. Just be sure to compare prices, since sometimes products at farmers markets cost more than the grocery store. The key is to buy only as much as you will use to avoid having to throw away spoiled food. The good news is that most produce can be frozen to be used later. If you portion it into the appropriate single serving size beforehand, it makes incredibly easy to consume just the right amount. To get the most from the money you spend on packaged foods, try eating no more than the serving sizes listed on food labels. Not only does this help you eat less of the food saving you from having to buy it more frequently, but it also helps you better manage your fat, sugar, salt, and calorie intake.
In order to change how we eat, we need to be aware of the difference between a food’s serving size versus our portion size, learn how to judge how much we actually should be eating and practice mindful eating techniques. All of these are very individualized goals and the problem is that most people aren’t fully informed about what they should be doing. On top of this, the societal mindset of equating big portions with good value further hinders the process of trying to make changes. So, in addition to getting the message about portion sizes and mindful eating out to the general public, we need to change the idea that when it comes to food that more is better. It is possible to have too much of a good thing, and often times, we do.
We know that overeating is quite literally all in our minds thanks to our two brain systems that control our desire to eat. We also know that too many calories can negatively affect our weight and health. This is why making a commitment to eating healthy portions is vital. We must keep in mind that anything worth having requires sacrifice, time and effort. Besides, it isn’t as much of a hassle as you think to eat appropriate amounts of food. By paying attention, matching portion sizes to serving sizes and mainly consuming healthy foods and drinks, you’ll be able to eat just the right amount that your body needs. Since each person’s body is different in the amount calories they need each day to lose weight or maintain your weight, understanding your body’s needs is essential. Your need depends on a variety of factors, such as your age, current weight, metabolism, whether you are male or female and how active you are. In addition to checking food labels for calories and keeping track of what, when, where, why and how much you eat, you should also keep track of how much physical activity you get each day. Physical activity is key to equalizing the difference between calories you take in and calories you burn off. By balancing your intake of food so that it’s both nutritious and pleasurable to consume, you’ll have a more meaningful and mindful eating experience that in the long run leads to a healthier relationship with food.