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Trick your brain to avoid ‘portion distortion’


It’s impossible to live your healthiest life without keeping your portion sizes in check. It just comes with the territory, like putting effort into your sweat sessions and making smart choices when browsing the supermarket aisles. “When people overeat, it leads to irregularity in blood sugar. It also leads to obesity, which is a contributing factor to heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, inflammation and certain cancers,” says Brigitte Zeitlin, M.P.H., R.D., C.D.N, dietitian at B-Nutritious.

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Getting ready to grab a post-workout snack? Don’t let us scare you into tossing it in the trash. Portion control isn’t about depriving yourself — it’s about eating just enough to stay fueled and full. However, opinions on what constitutes good portion control are so varied that it can be hard to know what to follow. That, combined with super-sized servings in restaurants, can often bring on a dangerous case of portion distortion. You know, convincing yourself that heaping plate of pasta is a healthy serving. The key to success: Don’t follow every tip about portion control that you hear. It’s really about finding the select techniques that fit your personality, sticking with them and enjoying the benefits.

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Real talk about portion sizes

1. Ignore the size of your plate

You’ve heard it before: Small plates equal smaller meals. Or do they? Researchers from the University of Connecticut presented a group of 162 participants with a consistent portion of food on different-sized plates. Participants who were overweight or obese ate the same amount of food, regardless of plate size. Huh?

Although the study was small, it’s still valuable. “Focusing on the size of your plate isn’t teaching you the different amounts of what you should be eating,” says Zeitlin. You’ve got to know what a proper portion size should actually look like, before loading up a plate of any size. In a pinch, Zeitlin advises loading half of your plate with veggies. Divide the other half into quarters. Put protein in one, then starch in the other. Above all, take your time while eating so you can pay attention to satiety clues. Easy visual guides, like What 25 Grams of Protein Looks Like, or What 200 Calories of Nuts Looks Like, might help, too.

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2. Serve yourself (some) bad foods

Ever looked at portion size plates (like this one) and wondered where the fries fit in? The key to feeling satisfied — and avoiding binges — might lie in dedicating some of your plate to virtuous foods, and some to vices, according to researchers at Vanderbilt University. Recognizing that few people have the willpower to give up junk entirely, researchers set out to discover just how much we need to feel satisfied.

Study authors allowed participants to select bundles of food containing various portions of virtuous foods, like apples, or vice foods, like chips. People reported the smaller portions (as little as 1/4 of the total food consumed) of vice foods were just as tasty and satisfying as the larger portions. That’s right: Just a few fries will seem as great as a carton.

3. Treat yo’self to food that smells awesome

You’d think getting a whiff of really delicious-smelling food would just stoke your appetite, right? But it turns out that the more intense the aroma, the smaller the bite you’ll take, according to research in the journal Flavour. In the study, researchers presented 10 participants with vanilla custard. The authors then manipulated the aroma of the food, eventually concluding that people took smaller bites when the aroma was stronger. “Smelling food is a really important part of eating well because it’s linked to taste,” says Susan Albers, Psy.D., a psychologist and New York Times bestselling author of Eat Q: Unlock the Weight-Loss Power of Emotional Intelligence. “The good news is that inhaling the aroma before you take a bite is easy and quick.”

4. Check yourself before you wreck yourself

If you typically sit down to a meal and eat so quickly your name might as well be Hoover, it’s time to hit reset. “Taking a mindful pause to ask yourself if you’re really hungry before you take even one bite is key,” Albers says. That gives you a chance to figure out whether you’re eating to fuel your body, or whether your urge to chow down is from boredom or stress.

“I always recommend the 5 S’s of mindful eating: sit down, smell, savor, slowly chew and smile,” says Albers. “More is not better, even with food. It’s all about experiencing and enjoying what you eat. That’s what makes it truly satisfying.” Check in, before you dig in.

5. Sometimes you can trick yourself into eating less

The smaller plate trick might not cut it, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to manipulate yourself into eating better. One big reason people overeat is because they’re distracted. Force yourself to focus by eating with your non-dominant hand, suggests research in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. “Switching hands jolts you out of autopilot. It’s similar to writing with your opposite hand. You can do it, but it takes more of your attention and concentration,” says Albers.

Another harmless hack: Hydrating. “Your stomach can’t tell the difference between hunger and thirst,” says Zeitlin. She recommends drinking around 10 glasses of water a day, or more if you’re active. Not only will proper hydration boost pretty much every system in your body, guzzling some before you eat can help fill you up so you don’t overdo it.

Most importantly, don’t deprive yourself. Remember: A small portion can be just as satisfying as a heaping helping. In one study in the journal Food Quality and Preference, participants were served either a large or small portion of apple pie, chocolate and chips. Those who got the large portion ate around 103 calories more than those who got the small one — but they all reported similar levels of satisfaction. “If you allow yourself conscious indulgences, you don’t feel like you’re restricting yourself,” says Zeitlin.

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