10 Strategies to Reduce or Eliminate Portion Distortion

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Do you have a case of portion distortion? Are you economy sizing, value-mealing and supersizing? If so, read on.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Nearly 40% of U.S. adults are obese, along with 17% of children ages 2 to 19. Being obese or overweight raises your risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, blood pressure or cholesterol problems, stroke, and cancer. (1)”

While much of the obesity epidemic has to do with 24/7 access to nutrient-void and stripped yet calorically dense, highly processed, sub-foods, it often has to do with the portions we’ve grown used to over time. 

Portions today have grown tremendously. “The small Coke now is what used to be a large 15 years ago,” study author and psychologist Janet Schwartz, a marketing professor at Tulane University suggests. Picture almost any food you’re served compared to the same food served 20 years ago. Just picture popcorn at the movies, do-it-yourself servings at a frozen yogurt shop, a large drink at a fast food restaurant. These portions are only getting bigger and bigger.

Do we want to eat these large portions or are we just eating them because they’re available…

A recent study at Duke University found that diners at a Chinese restaurant would gladly have a half-sized portion of the foods they were eating, even if the price was the same. But even if that’s the case, research suggests we’ll eat what’s in front of us and rely on the size of the plates, cups and portions served instead of having to rely on willpower to stop us from finishing a portion.

Food-science researcher Brian Wansink of Cornell University found children were satisfied with about half the fries in their Happy Meal long before McDonald’s cut back on size and calories last year. (2)

So if we’re satisfied with less, what triggers us to have more? Here are a few culprits:

Plate sizes – Serve food on a larger plate and we’ll eat more vs. the same food served on a smaller sized plate

Colors of our plates – The more the contrast, the less we eat and vice versa. When the colors of our plate resemble the colors of our food, it’s easy to pile on more. A stark contrast “makes you think twice before you throw on another scoop,” explains Wansink.

Lighting – We tend to eat more when the lighting is dim vs. bright light.

Visual cues – Another study by Dr. Andrew Geier, Dr. Brian Wansink and Dr. Paul Rozin tested food segmentation, where 98 students at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and University of Pennsylvania were given tubes of stacked potato chips to eat while in class. Half the class was given a stack of chips with a segmented chip every 7-14 chips. The rest of the class was given the stack of chips without any segmentation. The study found that the students who had their snack segmented ate up to 50% less than the group that had the stack of chips without any segmentation. The visual cue discouraged mindless eating. (1)

So how can you get your portions back in check?

1. Make the decision to not reach into a bag or box. If you want it, serve yourself a portion and put it on a plate, then put the bag or box away. Chances are, if it’s in a bag or a box it’s not healthy anyway and will only trigger the desire for more, once you start.

2. Use smaller plates. Try serving your dinner on lunch plates vs. on dinner plates and watch how much less you consume.

3. Portion-control your treats. Make the decision to limit portions before they’re in front of you, such as one cookie, one bite, etc. If that’s too hard, consider a more satisfying and healthy alternative instead.

4. Don’t go somewhere hungry. Being overly hungry leads to overeating every time. A healthy snack or mini-meal with healthy, lean protein, healthy fats and fiber (veggies, low sugar fruit) will encourage better decisions when you’re out.

5. Limit options. If there are ten choices available, we may want to try seven out of the ten, but if there are only a few, our choices to overdo it are more limited. Less options often mean less potential ways to sabotage our healthy eating efforts.

6. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s easier to avoid over-eating tempting treats when they’re not plainly visible. Putting them away or even wrapping them in aluminum foil can make them less tempting when they’re harder to see.

7. Avoid mindless eating. Turning off the television or limiting any distractions enables us to more thoroughly enjoy our food and be satisfied with less.

8. Plate vs. family style. So often we want to stay at the family table because of the togetherness and closeness the family meal can bring. When food is on the table, it’s natural to go for seconds and thirds. Filling the plates then bringing them to the table allows us to enjoy heaping conversations, not portions.

9. Eat nutrient-dense foods. Studies find that when we eat whole, rich, organic and nutrient-dense food, we often eat up to 30% less. The concentration of nutrients along with much richer tastes from real food allows us to reach a feeling of satiety much sooner.

10. Appetite vs. hunger. Check in with yourself about why you’re eating. Is your body telling you it’s time to eat or is it a trigger – a person, place, thought or feeling – that ignited your desire for food? Eating when you’re physically hungry is what your body needs and will use for fuel. Eating in response to a trigger gives your body excess fuel it doesn’t need and can only store for you for when it does.

How have you cut your portions? I’d love to know, comment and share!

1. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/portion-control-may-be-all-in-the-mind-studies-suggest/

2. http://foodpsychology.cornell.edu/outreach/red_chip.html

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January 2023