Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Portion control

Actually, this post has nothing to do with control, because in my experience that just doesn’t work, at least not for me. I am absolutely hopeless with portion control. In fact although I eat almost no processed food, cook most things from scratch (even some types of cheese! Sorry, I’m just proud of that) and eat lots of veggies, I have never been able to control how much I eat. Eating is one of my greatest pleasures, which is why I have never risked my love for food by counting calories or analysing macro nutrient quantities (unless it was meat, because that was out for about 3 years). In fact, because of this love of food, I have felt entitled to eat as much as I pleased, even though my weight was constantly on the increase. The problem was that even if I tried to ‘trick’ myself by eating on smaller plates, I would feel deprived, especially as I watched my husband scoff down seconds and sometimes thirds (claiming he was still ‘hungry’ and sucking up by telling me how good my cooking was!)

I began practising the whole concept of intuitive eating whilst travelling through France using some of the ideas from "French Women Don’t Get Fat" after my grandfather told me that I had a weight problem and would probably struggle with it for the rest of my life. Funnily enough, despite eating baguette with butter for breakfast each morning and a selection of cheese and half a bottle of wine each night (as well as dinner) I actually lost weight. I wanted to continue when I got home, but my usual eating patterns returned as soon as the plane touched down. That’s when at the start of this year, I took the bull by the horns and decided to change my regular habits for good, without needing to rely on willpower for the rest of my life. These were the steps I took to learn to eat the ‘right’ amount.

Stage 1 – Put enough food on my plate that I acknowledge that it is too much for one sitting. Focus entirely on eating and how that feels as food enters the body and how hunger slowly diminishes. Stop when I feel satisfied and push the plate away. The rest can be eaten later if hungry or the following day for lunch or another meal. The key at this stage is to the sensations associated with not being stuffed immediately after a meal and throughout the evening or day. I found that I felt lighter, less tiered and satisfied with myself for not overeating.

Stage 2 – After a few weeks, I began to recognise what a ‘portion’ size suitable for me was so I decreased the amount on my plate to be what I thought appropriate. I still continued to be conscious, but it was less of an effort than in the first stage. At this point, I was still regularly over eating, but less than what I would have defined as stuffed in the past.

Stage 3 – I realised with shock, horror and delight that I could choose to eat less because it felt better, even when the food was on the table in front of me and my fellow eating companions were going back for seconds (and usually commenting that I didn’t eat much any more although I would be hungry again quicker than everyone else). At this point, overeating is fairly rare and when it does happen it’s not in excess.

Why do I think this has worked for me? Positive reinforcement. Every time I didn’t overeat I would think to myself how nice it felt to eat just the right amount rather than commenting that I couldn’t move, or feeling sleepy because my body was so busy digesting it was shutting down none essential functions – like my brain! Slowly but surely, I began being able to make the choice to eat less, because there was something that could weigh up against seconds – feeling good. What made it work was that it wasn’t external thoughts like ‘I shouldn’t eat any more because I’ll get fat’ or ‘Everyone is looking at you fatty, do you really need another piece?’ or ‘you’re going to eat HOW much…you’re trying to lose weight…no wonder you ALWAYS fail….you MORON’. These days, the internal dialogue goes more like:

Stomach: I think I’m full.
Brain: What already?!? You’ve only eaten half of what’s on your plate, are you sure you’re full, I think that the tastebuds are really having fun tonight.
Stomach: I know, but I’m definitely full. If I change my mind you can have more later.
Brain: I just have one thing to say to you stomach – you’re eating like a girl!
Stomach: Ahh brain, you and I are a girl! And you will be the first to complain that you feel so sleepy if you keep shoving food in me.
Brain: I know, I know you have reminded me 3 times a day for the last two months!
Stomach: And do you FEEL better when you aren’t drowsy because you didn’t eat too much and you can go and do fun things because of it? Besides in a few hours you will be complaining that I’m ALWAYS hungry!
Brain: Hey who do you think you are stomach!?! The brain or something!?! I know what’s good for me and I say you are full. Dinner’s over, but I’ll be back!

And my friends wonder why I occasionally space out during dinner! In case you are wondering, the only part of my body other than my brain that talks is my stomach! So that is how I have succeeded in reducing my portion sizes. For me, this is has been the only long term option that I can take anywhere because it is determined solely by the capacity of the stomach and doesn’t involve any tricks or willpower to make me eat less, just a warm satisfied feeling when I know I will feel good!

So I wonder, what are your strategies for reducing how much you eat? What about if you have never had to think about it because you just ‘know’ you’ve had enough and can stop? Any other suggestions for how this could work when there are chocolate coated macadamia nuts in front of me (intuitive eating doesn’t work then)? Do any of your body parts talk to you?


  1. You know, I've also found that trying to gauge the right portions is no easy task. Plus, it depends on the food being eaten and, yes, time of the month. I can get a full feeling after eating a 1/4 cup of cottage cheese, but pasta has always been a trickster. So, what I end up doing is filling up on veggies and water and the allow smaller portions of the no-noes and hope that works. And I try to eat several times a day so that I never get to the point of being famished.

    This is all starting to sound familiar, huh?

    Oh, and have you noticed that when drinking wine, you're not as hungry? I eat much less when I've had 2 glasses.

  2. Oooh homemade cheese, I'd love to hear more about this. I definitely have never been one to know when I've had enough, although I'm working on this one. I think my biggest problem has been seeing hunger as a negative thing rather than just a sign to take note of. So one of my strategies is to eat when I'm hungry, rather than wait until 'meal time'. This keeps me feeling satisfied and less likely to over eat later in the day. As far as the chocolate coated macadamias go, I get my partner to hide all chocolate products and ration them out. It may sound crazy but it really works for me. I actually end up enjoying them rather than feeling guilty about them.

    Now talking body parts, I have an ongoing dialogue with my stomach and most recently have moved into talking to my muscles, we like eachother, it's nice :)

  3. Wow, my brain and stomach have the exact same argument all the time! I know what a portion size is, but I am TERRIBLE at controlling myself. It's gotten out of hand. I'm going to try your strategy.

    - Sagan

  4. oh, you are my role model! I have had to limit everything I eat because up to this point, i have been UNABLE to win the battle..Thanks for planting the seed!

  5. A friend of mine is suggesting I use Flavor Magic Portion Control Sheets, which she describes as basically a portioning guide that also seasons the food. Kind of like the “palm of hand” rule, but more accurate. Does anyone have input on this one? She claims it is working for her with home cooking. I want to give it a shot but it looks like it is only available online.

  6. Camevil - Yup I do most of that. But I haven't found that with wine, that's pretty interesting. It could be because I usually don't drink my wine until after I finish eating!
    Berni - I have to hide sweets from my husband, otherwise we would always be buying huge amounts and yet there wouldn't be any left! I've come to realise also that hunger is a good thing. It's a great feeling to be hungry before a nice meal instead of eating just because it's dinner time.
    Sagan - It can be frustrating hey when you are having a yummy meal and your stomach goes 'nup, I've had enough. Eat any more and you'll feel like crap!' Good luck and let me know how you go.
    Jen - Thank you very much, I hope it can work for you. Let me know how you go.
    Alana - They do sound interesting and I could see them working for some. I don't cook like that though and I'm very strict on my meat intake it's probably the only thing I have full control of having been a vegetarian. I would be curious to know if it works for you or others though.



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