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Why Portion Sizes Matter! (more than most things)

We are going to talk about portion sizes. I categorized this as a saboteur because I have seen many cases, including with me, of eating nothing but healthy whole food and gaining weight. It is SO frustrating.

The only explanation lies in CICO, Calories in = Calories out (read my cardio post for more explanation and breakdown of CICO). Portion sizes matter in this equation. And thanks to Supersize menus, we have a skewed view of what they should be. So I will use this article to understand the problem, and then offer a guide to retrain your brain – which is what I had to do after being brainwashed by the skewed portion size saboteur.

vegetable salad in gray bowl
Even a healthy meal like a salad can turn unhealthy without an understanding of portion sizes. Photo by Yoav Aziz

The truth is hard to swallow

One thing I always noticed when I traveled overseas was how different portion sizes are. In France, a croissant or a piece of toast is smaller than my hand. In Italy, you get a coffee saucer size serving of pasta as a light appetizer, not a big heaping bowl as a main dish. If you order a cup of coffee anywhere in Europe, you get a little cup, not a big heaping 7-11 sized mug. In Asian countries, a serving of noodles or rice is not in a deep dish, it’s in a tiny bowl. And, meals are often served in dishes that everyone shares, like on a spinning table.

And what is the kicker about these countries that have a less diet-obsessed, exercise-centric culture?  People ARE thinner. Statistically, Asian culture has the slimmest people on earth

I came into the reality of my own skewed view of portion sizes when I went to China for a business trip. I was invited to lunch with the VP of the company,  so I was really wanting to be at my best. When the food was served, it was on a big Lazy Susan with multiple plates of different kinds of  delicious-looking, steaming hot food. As the guest, I was invited to serve myself first, which my Chinese-American colleague sitting next to me confirmed was standard. Having walked all day touring the site, I was starving. I scooped a heaping spoonful from each of the plates onto mine, then waited for everyone else to start eating. I thought I had nailed it.

To my embarrassment, the VP and her colleagues each smiled politely and only took a spoonful of ONE dish each. I glanced at my colleague who smiled and said that it was custom to sample a small portion of each dish before trying another dish. Why couldn’t SHE have gone first? Meanwhile, I had treated this spread of gourmet delicacies like I was at a Golden Corral and had this huge mound of food in front of me!

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It’s not us, it’s our “influencers”

Upon further reflection, this event and how my approach was, um, different, was not more than a product of my environment and American culture. There is even a word for this phenomenon – the “scarcity” complex. We have this underlying, irrational fear that food is scarce, so we pile our plates high and make sure we have enough for leftovers. Rather than reasoning, take a little and if we are hungry, eat some more. Or eating and actually waiting for the feeling of fullness. It’s a known fact that there is a delay between the actual fullness in the stomach and the time the brain takes to understand why it’s full. I covered this in my article on the secrets of naturally thin people.

What does “portion control mean”?

You hear “portion control” but what does that actually mean?  It doesn’t mean pecking at your food like a bored supermodel, or eating miserably small amounts of food. 

That means understanding what appropriate portion sizes of protein, carbohydrates and fat are and then actually intaking these portions instead of multiples of them.  If you order a salad with the dressing, you could be inhaling 3-4 tablespoons of oil per MEAL which alone could be as much as 500 calories not even counting the food. And those calories add UP. You could unknowingly be eating a 1400 calorie salad.  You could order a smoothie at the gym after working out, thinking you are doing the perfect thing by nourishing yourself, but ingesting 700-800 calories, when you could have made a smoothie at home and had as many healthy ingredients for about half the calories.

Why restaurants and food chains have poisoned the well 

The American food industry has distorted the normal serving sizes and as a result, people eat more. As a result of eating more, your stomach learns to expand to hold more food. So your body becomes used to those portion sizes, not just physiologically but psychologically. To be fair, this evolved over time – as this article explaining how portion sizes change over time explains. We took the “land of plenty” and abundance a llitle too far. Bigger is better. Bigger body parts, bigger cars, bigger food.

Restaurants serve portions that are way, way, too much; for example, a normal serving size of beef is about 4 ounces, but you typically get a 12-16 ounce serving at a restaurant. Even a chicken breast is usually two or three times the amount you should be eating. Sandwiches are so big you can barely open your mouth to bite into them, and they come with heaping servings of french fries. Desserts that can be “shared” usually are too much even if three people share the same dessert. An appetizer is often big enough to be an entrée. Salads are usually enough for at least two people, and many times they are ordered as appetizers. 

Even if you cook your own food, all the time, it’s still a portion size issue . The other night, I was making my chicken tikka meal (see my recipes) and I cooked two breasts, one for myself and one for my husband. It came precut in the package. Just out of curiosity, I weighed one of them, and was stunned to learn it was NINE OUNCES! So one breast was really enough for the two of us.

But there is a remedy to this.

How to unlearn the bad habits

There are easy ways to know what a reasonable serving size is.  Learning portion control is key – and this requires training just like any other skill.

Here is a list of common foods, and the recommended portion size for each (per sitting):

  • Lean animal protein and fish – 3-4 ounces
  • Grains and fruits – 1 cup 
  • Yogurt -1 cup
  • Nuts – 1-2 ounce or ¼-½  cup (this is the recommended daily allowances
  • Cheese, avocado, nut butter, oils -1- 2 tablespoons
  • Vegetables – 2 cups 

So now that you know what the right portion sizes, the key is metrics – you have to know if you are actually missing or meeting the mark. And believe me, it is a lot easier to miss the mark than you think.

I keep cup and tablespoon/teaspoon measures handy, plus you can buy one of these portioning kits to train yourself how much is a serving size of veggies, fruits, carbs, and dressings!

Knowing the metrics

In the DAO of metrics, I explain why they are important and why you can’t ignore them.

This leads to the next logical step – weigh and measure your food, at least for a while .  Invest in a  cup measure, a digital food scale (you can get a great quality one for less than 30 bucks)  and a teaspoon/ tablespoon measure – you won’t have to use these tools for long, because after a while, your naked eye will be able to decipher a tablespoon of fat or 3-4 ounce serving of meat.  

Once you get smart to what reasonable portions are, you will see what restaurants serve is way out of whack.

Use smaller plates, bowls and glasses

One observation I made earlier was the size of the cups and plates in other countries. When I serve meals, I use the smaller appetizer or salad size plates for the main dish. For my yogurt or cereal/oatmeal, I use a small mug or for yogurt I use a little bowl like these.I also use smaller spoons and forks, which forces me to take smaller bites and eat more slowly. You may feel like Alice in Wonderland at first, but then you will totally get used to it.

Learn to trust your naked eye with this guidance 

Consult a guide like this one to be able to eyeball portion sizes with your naked eye, but only after you have weighed at measured for a few weeks. This is helpful when you are out and about or at a party. If people ask you what you are doing with your hand tell them there was a fly. 🙂

Your palm determines your protein portions.

Your fist determines your vegetable portions.

Your cupped hand determines your carb and dairy portions.

Your thumb determines your fat portions.

This guide gives more visual clarity to the hand analogies. You can also invest in one of the portioning kits like the one linked in the caption above.

people having a toast
Let the good times roll agian! Learn to manage portion sizes ahead of meals out with frends. Photo by Elevate

What to do when you do eat out

So what DO you do when you go out, and don’t have a scale (some people take them, but I am not in that extreme camp).

Here are a few suggestions I will make for now, and I will have a separate more extended post on restaurant dining:

  • A good rule of thumb for restaurants and takeout is to eat half of the portion of what you are given, and save the rest for the next meal. Sometimes I ask them for a box and pack that up right away.
  • Plan out your meals for the day working backwards from when you know you are going out to eat. So let’s say you know you are going to dinner at this amazing restaurant with your close friends. You know that means ordering shared apps, desserts, etc. So plan on eating a light breakfast and lunch, and then an hour before, have a light snack like a handful of almonds or an apple so you can show up NOT starving and tear into the breadbasket as soon as it arrives.
  • Order an appetizer as your entree. For example, as said before, salads are usually entree sized. If you are worried that the restaurant may have smaller appetizer menus look at the menu, yelp or trip advisor beforehand to get picture visuals, or even just look around the restaurant and (subtly) size up what’s on people’s plates. You can tell from a very quick glance what the plance’s approach to portion size looks like. Or, you can even ask the waitperson. I am not shy about asking how much a serving size of soup or salad is. And most of the time, they are happy to show with their hands how big it is or tell me it’s big enough to share or have as a meal. Especially nowadays, customer service is top notch! 
  • If there is a bunch of sharing plates going on, don’t replicate my #Shanghaifail. Take a little bit of each dish and eat INDIVIDUALLY before taking some of another dish, and be super picky. If you are at a Brazilian steakhouse, you don’t have to say yes to every piece of meat.

I will have a whole different post about restaurant dining, coming up soon! After all, we just got more restrictions released…and it’s almost time to rejoin the human race.

Key takeaway

While we are still at home for most of the time, use this to your advantage to get your “training” in. It is super simple, and if you follow the advice of “naturally thin” people and eat more slowly, you will naturally eat less and have more realistic portion sizes. And less culture shock when we finally get to travel and wine and dine clients again!

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