America has one of the highest obesity rates in the world; over 66% of the population is either overweight or obese, and it’s in the top 20 countries for obesity. A huge part of this problem isn’t what we eat, but how much of it we eat.
Other countries tend to have much smaller portion sizes than we do. In France, supermarkets sell candy bars that are half again as small as their American counterparts, restaurants serve portions that are anywhere from three-quarters to one-fifth of the size, and even cookbooks give recipes for smaller servings of entrees and larger servings of vegetables.
And the problem is only getting worse. According to the CDC, the difference between portion sizes 20 years ago and portion sizes today comes out to a whopping 500,000 calories per year! By taking charge of how much you eat, you can take control of your diet and your waistline.
Know Your Serving Sizes
How many servings of meat did you have with dinner? You may only have eaten one chicken breast, but if it was a big one, you could have eaten three or four servings of meat.
According to the American Heart Association, a serving of grains is half a cup of cooked rice, pasta, or other grains; half a cup of cooked vegetables or a cup of raw ones; half a cup of fresh fruit; a cup of milk or yogurt; and three ounces of cooked meat.
Keep this in mind when you’re preparing foods from scratch; if you eat half a pound of meatloaf, it’s almost three servings of meat, not just one.
If you’re using any prepackaged foods while preparing your meal from scratch (even if it’s just the olive oil you drizzle on your salad – more on that in a minute), check out the nutritional guidelines before you eat.
You may discover that the box of couscous or quinoa you’re preparing is meant to be three or four servings, not one or two. Even supposedly single-serve dinners will occasionally sneak in extra serving sizes; when you check the nutritional guidelines, it may say that the package contains two servings, so the manufacturers can claim that it only has half the fat and calories that it actually does. Keep track of how much you’re eating.
Measure Everything . . .
A food scale and a set of measuring cups and spoons will be your best friends in trying to control your portion sizes. If your box of cereal says that a serving is 3/4 of a cup and you aren’t sure how much that is, measure it out into your bowl. Put meat on a scale to see how many ounces you’re eating.
If the thought of measuring everything drives you crazy, you can learn to eyeball your serving sizes. A cup is about the size of a baseball, while half a cup is roughly the size of a light bulb. Three ounces of meat are the size of a deck of cards or the palm of your hand.
Be warned, though; this kind of eyeballing is objective, which means that you can convince yourself that the dinner-plate-sized plate of spaghetti in front of you is maybe a teeny bit bigger than two light bulbs. If you try to estimate the size of your portions and your waistline just refuses to shrink, bring out the measuring cups and food scales for a few weeks no matter how annoying it is.
. . . Even The Little Things
Portion sizes don’t just count for the most obvious items on your plate. It is definitely important to measure the sizes of your meat, vegetables, and grains, but it’s just as important to measure how much oil or butter you use to moisten the grains and how much dressing you use on the salad.
To use an obvious example, you aren’t going to lose any weight if you fry those three ounces of chicken in half a cup of olive oil, and it doesn’t matter how few calories coffee has if you add four tablespoons of sugar and another four of half-and-half.
Measure every ingredient you use. A tablespoon of oil, butter, or salad dressing is about the size of a poker chip. Going beyond that is a good way to sabotage all the hard work you’re doing.
Don’t Skip Meals
It’s tempting to cut back on your portion sizes by skipping breakfast or lunch, but if you do that, you’re likely to overeat at your next meal. To make matters worse, skipping meals can cause your blood sugar and insulin levels to crash dangerously low before spiking abnormally high, which contributes to diabetes and can cause you to gain unhealthy levels of abdominal fat.
Instead, aim for three meals a day with a small snack or two to keep you from coming to the table famished.
Get New Plates
It’s a simple optical illusion, but it works. When you put a healthy serving of food on a small plate, it fills the plate and looks like a feast; when you put it on a large plate, it’s surrounded by empty space and looks like a child’s portion.
A 2003 study showed that people who ate cereal from large bowls ate nearly 20% more than people who ate cereal from smaller ones, yet felt like they ate less. Try swapping out your plates for smaller ones to trick yourself into eating less.
You could also switch your dinner plates and your salad plate; when you eat your meat and grains from a plate that’s full to bursting you’ll feel as though you’ve had plenty, while the white space surrounding your salad will encourage you to get a second helping.
Because of the complicated series of hormones involved in eating, it takes twenty minutes for your stomach to signal to your brain that it’s full. If you eat too quickly, you may find yourself eating a larger portion than you actually want.
Chew slowly, put down your fork or sandwich between bites, and take sips of water or another calorie-free beverage between bites to encourage yourself to eat more slowly. Eating slowly can also help you to enjoy your food more; you won’t mind as much that you’re only eating a half-cup of ice cream instead of a king-sized cone if you really savor every mouthful.
Be Careful About Restaurants
Restaurant portions are notorious for being huge, so when you eat out, have a plan in mind. If you’re getting fast food, order a small; the sandwich will be the same size, so all you’re doing is cutting back on the number of fries.
If you really are so famished that you want more after you’re done, go back and order a salad. If you’re eating at a sit-down restaurant, try splitting your meal with a friend. You can also try self-managing by cutting your meat and grains in half on the plate, setting one half aside, and eating the other half.