Prioritize Portion size?

This week in Nutrition Month our theme is portion sizes. Watch those portions people!

To be honest I have a love hate relationship with portion sizes.

Researchers like Brian Wansink have really provided a strong foundation of evidence for the fact that humans have a hard time self regulating themselves.

And I would agree.

When we buy more we eat more. When we have bigger plates, we fill them up more, and the end of the meal is determined not by our stomach but by the sight of an empty plate.

Without practice.

Portion sizes and learning how much is the right amount for you is something you can learn. But it takes practice. It takes patience. It takes work.

It also takes paying attention and being mindful.

One of the studies often sited is when Brian Wansink and his team provided movie goers with stale popcorn, and whether people had a medium or a large they ate about the same amount as they did when the popcorn was fresh… and the folks with a large sized bag (despite THINKING they ate the same as those with medium sizes) actually ate more. And while this sort of cognitive dissonance between what we think we ate and what we did eat is normal, I would also point out most of us are doing pretty mindless eating when we’re at a movie with a giant bag of popcorn in front of us.

On the flip side

It probably seems to this point I agree whole heartedly with the idea of portion sizes. Most countries have some sort of guide of portions of food in food groups, along with daily numbers of portions. In Canada it’s mostly the Canada Food Guide – which is admittedly controversial at best.

Almost every diet I’ve ever seen also has their own versions of portion sizes, along with total numbers of each food portion to eat in a day. Usually these portions are equal or smaller then the CFG, but they are almost always fewer servings – particularly of starches etc.

The issue I have is that this can end up being the same problem as mindlessly eating large bags of popcorn; if you simply follow a prescribed formula of portions you can also be ignoring your hunger and fullness signals, and end up restricting yourself because even though you are starving you’ve already eaten your daily allowed intake of grains or what have you.

So what can we do

I don’t see anything wrong with learning about portion sizes. But instead of simply going down to one serving (or whatever is given as a number meal amount) at a meal immediately, check out how much you are currently eating first.

This is the big starting point that we often like to skip: awareness of WHAT we are CURRENTLY DOING. We like to jump right into the changes, the portion cut backs, the different meal numbers. Etc.

From there decide if the number of portions (be it one, two, three or naught) is working for you. Do you leave the table satisfied but energized? Are you still hungry? Or too full? Be curious, not judgemental. Don’t tell yourself that you are such a pig for being hungry only 30 minutes after eating one serving of pasta or rice or chicken. Simply allow that to be what your body tells you. Then make changes – do you need a little more at meals? Or maybe better snacking is what would best work for you since two servings of pasta leaves you sleepy after dinner.

I know I sound like a broken record, but when it comes to our diet, to changing it or to being healthy it really is about awareness without judgement. Judgement and shaming do not make us want to change. Usually they make us rebel against the voice by eating more loudly and proudly, or sneaking it behind our own back.

To Conclude

Portion sizes can be a place of learning. Mindless eating can take the form of eating too much or too little; we can always get the supersized version of what we want to eat, or we can follow restrictive diet plans that allow little wiggle room. Awareness of what we are eating is important. And looking at how much food we comfortably eat, whether it meets standards like CFG or not, without judgement is also key to finding balance and healthy eating.


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