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.


Quality Counts: a different perspective

When it comes to food quality really does count. Diets high in processed foods are often linked to chronic diseases, while low processed, as close to the form Mother Earth gave them, foods tend to be linked to healthier outcomes.

But when it comes to food it is easy to think what we eat is the only quality thing that counts, but there are other parts of our meal that count too.

Quality counts in how you eat

I know it might sound weird, but the relationship you have to food – when, why and how you eat, can have huge affects on your health. Today I want to focus on the quality that matters for how you eat your meals.

Take for instance the family meal; something many struggle to have in this day and age of busy on-the-go lives. But the number of health benefits that exist when a family takes the time to sit down and eat together are numerable. Family meals promote healthy relationships for adults and children; not just with other human beings, but also with food. This is one of the beautiful things about food; it is a place where we can connect.

The same goes for those of us who are family or child free. Eating with friends has many health benefits, as food is the perfect medium for socializing – and even us introverts experience health benefits from time with friends. Even when eating alone it is important to respect the time around food; mindful and intuitive eating both show that preparing a meal you will enjoy, creating a space that is inviting, and sitting down to mindfully enjoy that meal without distraction (no TV, no computer, no phone!) improves health outcomes. Not only that but you will be more satisfied; think about how quickly you mindlessly eat your dinner but still feel hungry after eating in front of the television. Or go through an entire bag of chips without feeling the fullness factor.

Do you feel the pressure?

It is hard to think about adding one more thing to our already full plates, or about cutting out something to fit in daily family meals. Culturally in North America there is great pride in being busy, in doing all the extra-curricular activities, and it can be hard to say no (particularly if they are things your kids love). Not only that but there is already a lot of pressure on parents to do a “perfect” job raising their kids, and having perfect family meals can be just one more place we shame and blame parents.

So in the name of trying to decrease the pressure, or spark some creativity around the how of your eating here are some ways you can incorporate this idea into your life.

For the Family Meal:

– The family meal does not have to be dinner. It can be lunch, it can be breakfast. Whatever meal you can find that allows you to sit down all together and eat is the meal that works.

– It doesn’t have to be every day. Despite our perfectionist beliefs, something is always better than nothing. Many of us might be weighed down with work, school and commitments on weekdays, but if there is one meal, one day a week when everyone can get together that still gives you benefits. A nice Sunday brunch or dinner? Awesome if that’s what you can do, that’s what you can do.

– Get everyone involved; have family members switch off who plans and cooks the meal. Get your kids involved in choosing the meal, helping get groceries and cooking. Everyone benefits from having basic cooking skills and the younger you begin to develop them, the better they will be.

For those of us who are single:

– It can be so hard to motivate yourself to cook a healthy meal for just you. Fortunately lots of easy meals are totally healthy; pasta with a meat or vegetarian sauce, salad and some protein such as chicken, tofu or beans, tuna melts, grilled cheese and soup…. good healthy food doesn’t have to be fancy. Speaking from personal experience; when I finally stepped off the dieting wagon I decided giving myself interesting and new meals was important for my self care. I chose a new recipe every few weeks to try, because I love to cook I knew this would be good for me. I also don’t mind having three or four meals a week that are “left overs”. This won’t work for everyone, you have to figure out what you like doing around food (throwing everything in the crock pot, maybe just eat fun and healthy sandwiches or wraps? Whatever floats your boat) to best have meals that are healthy and satisfying.

– If you really can’t imagine going to all that work just for yourself invite friends over (since eating out gets $$$ and isn’t always health friendly), or even organize a community kitchen style get together where you cook as a group and have meals for everyone to take home with them.

– Try to eat less in front of the TV and more in silence. Even try setting the table for yourself (yes it totally makes the meal feel special). Do I do these things all the time? No, but when I do it feels amazing.

So as week 2 of Nutrition Month rolls over, remember quality counts around food in many different ways. You can change what you eat, how and why you eat depending on your goals and circumstances, so go a head try to change up the how and see how it helps you.

Nutrition Month–let’s get ready

March is nutrition month, and this year Dietitians of Canada is asking you to take a 100 Meal Journey.


Image source.

A what now? You might be asking.

What it is

Every month most people eat roughly 100 meals. When trying to make new healthy habits around eating you have 100 opportunities to make small changes that can add up to big health benefits. When it comes to goal setting and making habit changes a lot of us have a habit of doing something really big or doing a whole lot of different things all at once. This ends up being no good. Too big of a change and we get shocked and the change doesn’t stick. Too many changes and we get overwhelmed and revert back to what’s easy: the bad habit we want to change.

Time to get SMART?

A lot of goal setting talks about S.M.A.R.T goal setting. SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Reasonable and Timely (ok the words are sometimes different but always with the same gist).

An not SMART goal: eating more fruits and vegetables.

A SMART goal: I will eat an extra serving of vegetables at every weekday lunch meal.

I don’t love S.M.A.R.T goal setting because it doesn’t make you dig down to your why. You can set perfectly great SMART goals but if you don’t dig into the why behind them they can leave you feeling unfulfilled.

So going back to the vegetable goal – that’s great but if you don’t have a why figured out, it probably won’t stick.


We know vegetables have lots of benefits but if you’re just doing it “because it’s the right thing I should be doing”, you probably won’t keep with it. “To be healthier” also probably doesn’t mean much.

So what does “the right thing” or “being healthier” actually mean to you? Does it mean having more energy in the day? Is it so you can get through the afternoon at work and have energy when you get home to your family?

Answering the why to our goals can be enlightening. Suddenly things like “lose the last 10lbs” become about “staying healthy and alive so I have energy for my grandkids when I’m old” – which is much more meaningful (no judgements if your health goals are not that deep – we all start somewhere).

Whatever you do…

Keep It Simple. Remember this is a 100 meal journey; you have 100 opportunities this month for those small changes. Should every meal involve a new goal? No fricking way. But pick a goal, maybe one or two, and you have a 100 Meals at which to work on it. Will you fail a couple times? Probably – but look at those slip ups with curiosity instead of judgement and you might surprised at what you learn about yourself.

Hop on over to Dietitians of Canada for some more ideas on goals and what’s coming up next for Nutrition Month!

How Do you Actually Want to Eat

So if you weren’t trying to lose weight, how would you be eating?

I’ve posed this question to many of my clients. many of whom have been trying to lose weight for their whole lives. Their first diet started before they were fat, because they felt fat. And each decade has been defined by what diet group they were a member of; Atkins, Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, the cabbage soup diet, the Master Cleanse… The list goes on.

Most come into my office, still hoping to lose weight. Sure that I have the diet to end all diets, that I have a secret meal plan up my sleeve so they can finally leave the dieting merry go round (sadly you just have to get off, before losing those pesky 10lbs).

As they proceed through their diet recall, each morsel of food that enters their mouth is justified by every food rule they have ever heard:

“Eggs for breakfast because they have protein. But only one because two is too many!”

“I can’t eat carbs; they are my downfall. Carbs are evil. I’ve only ever lost weight not eating carbs.”

“I shouldn’t eat after 7pm. I try not to eat after 7.” (and do you eat after 7? Actually I don’t know. But I try not to)

So when I ask them how they would be eating if they weren’t trying to lose weight they are flummoxed. Such a concept has not entered their mind since before their dieting days. Even the ones who are not actively dieting live with the plethora of food rules in their head, constantly circulating and directing their food choices.

Most diets tell you that you are either dieting or falling off the wagon. There is no concept of normal eating; the diets tell you the way you want to eat is to binge on junk food on whatever food is currently forbidden. Chronic dieters have been fighting a battle (against what they believe is falling off the wagon) for so long they can’t even remember what eating before the diet looked like. But they know (have been told) the eating and food enemy is out there, and it is their natural state, which they must fight.

What the diets don’t tell you is the very act of dieting creates the act of falling off the wagon. If you aren’t on the wagon to begin with  you can’t fall off. There is nothing inherently wrong with eating foods you enjoy. In fact permission to enjoy those foods makes them more satisfying, and you will be less likely to overeat them.

So ask yourself: “If weight loss weren’t the focus, how would I like to be eating?”

Think about it, the answer might be surprising.