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How to End Portion Distortion, Eat Less, and Still Be Happy

You're probably eating too much food. In just 24 hours, you can reset your idea of an average-sized portion. Here's how to eat less and still be satisfied.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
Episode #543
portion distortion

Can you eat less and still be happy?

Imagine sitting down to a meal with a bunch of other people. They might be friends, co-workers, or strangers—it doesn't really matter. Platters of food are brought to the table and passed around. For the sake of argument, let's say the food is appealing but not "sell-your-grandma" amazing.

How much do you end up eating?

Overeating goes beyond blood sugar and appetite

If it's been several hours since you last ate, your stomach is probably empty. Your blood sugar is should be relatively low. Your level of ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates your appetite, may be on the rise. If, on the other hand, you have eaten recently, then your stomach might still have some food in it. Your blood sugar levels are likely to be moderately high, and your ghrelin levels, low.

Factors having nothing to do with hunger may have a lot more influence over how much you put on your plate.

You might think that your blood sugar and appetite hormones would play a significant role in determining how much you eat in this scenario. In reality, factors having nothing to do with hunger may have a lot more influence over how much you put on your plate.

  • How big is your plate? Is it 8-9 inches across (which used to be standard) or is it closer to 12 inches in diameter, as is now typical?
  • How much food is on the serving platter? Is there one piece of chicken for each person at the table or enough for everyone to have seconds or thirds?
  • How big are the individual pieces on the platter? Is the lasagna cut into 3-inch squares or 5-inch squares?
  • How much food has your neighbor put on their plate?

These factors have a lot more influence over how much you serve yourself and eat than you might suspect.

If you're like most folks, if given a larger plate than you usually use, you'll serve yourself more than you typically do. If there's more food on the platter, you'll put more on your plate, regardless of how hungry you are. We're social animals, so you'll also calibrate your serving to match what other people at the table have served themselves.

If there's more food on the platter, you'll put more on your plate, regardless of how hungry you are.

If, on the other hand, there's less food on the platter, the food is cut into smaller pieces, your plate is smaller, or the others at the table serve themselves smaller helpings, you'll probably end up with significantly less on your plate.

Either way, once the food is on your plate, you'll probably finish all or most of it. And here's the real kicker: You might eat 30 percent less if given a 9-inch plate than you would from a 12-inch plate. But once your smaller plate is empty, you're likely to report the same level of fullness.

Oversized is the new normal, and that's not good

The amount of food we need to feel satisfied is powerfully affected by what we perceive to be a "normal" portion of that food. And our perception of normal is greatly influenced by visual, social, and environmental cues—all without us being particularly aware of this effect.

Now consider the fact that typical portion sizes—of everything from pasta to pizza to popcorn—have more than doubled over the last 30 years. The size of the sandwiches, steaks, and ice cream sundaes we see in TV ads, magazines menus, and cookbooks have all grown. We've come to expect bigger portions in restaurants and at our dinner tables, too.

We're not necessarily any hungrier than we were 30 years ago. But we sure are eating more—an additional 425 calories per day, on average. Is it any wonder that obesity rates have also doubled?

Is portion distortion reversible?

I have good news for you. Our perception of how much food we need and want is incredibly malleable. You can eat a lot less without feeling any less full. All you have to do is downsize your dinner plate.

Our perception of how much food we need and want is incredibly malleable.

More importantly, you can retrain your eyes and your brain to re-normalize smaller portions of the foods you eat every day. And it happens remarkably quickly!

Researchers Eric Robinson and Inge Kersbergen have shown that a single exposure to a specific portion size was enough to establish that as the standard portion size for that food.

In this study, subjects received a lunch consisting of a piece of quiche, salad, and water. Half the group was given a 3.5-ounce portion of quiche, and the other half got a 7-ounce portion. (Neither group could see what the other was served.) Both groups were asked to eat the entire meal.

The next day, the subjects came back and were served the same size salad and water, along with a much bigger piece of quiche (about 14 ounces). The researchers told them to eat only as much quiche as they wanted. They were also asked to indicate what they thought a normal serving of quiche would be.

Perhaps you can guess where this is going. Those who received the smaller portion the day before perceived a smaller portion as being normal. They also ate less than those who had been served a more substantial portion the day before. All reported the same level of fullness after their meal.

Apply this research to eat less and still be satisfied

I wish I could wave a magic wand and roll today's typical portion sizes back to 1980 levels, but that's beyond my powers. So, instead, we need to consciously resist the subliminal messages we're getting from our culture.

DINING OUT

When eating in restaurants, be aware that the portions are likely to be twice as big as they should be. That's likely to result in you eating a lot more than you need to feel completely satisfied. Split your entree with a friend, order an appetizer or half portion, or ask for a carryout container and stash half the meal at the outset.

AT THE GROCERY STORE

When you're grocery shopping, it can be tempting to buy larger packages because they offer better value, at least in terms of price per serving. But the larger the container is, the faster you're likely to eat its contents. That can easily wipe out any savings—especially when you factor in the health costs of overeating.

Buy snack foods, desserts, and other foods that you might be tempted to overeat in smaller packages. Go for the value-sized bags of fruits and vegetables instead!

EATING WITH OTHERS

When eating with others, be aware of the environmental factors that may influence you:

  • Are the plates larger than you usually use?
  • Is there a lot of food on the table?
  • Are others piling their plates?

See if you can consciously override these cues. Serve half what you think you need or want. If you're still hungry, you can go back for more. And if you can arrange to be the first one to serve yourself, you can positively influence everyone at the table by taking a normal-sized portion!

EATING AT HOME

When you're on home turf, it's easier to stack the odds in your favor. Serve meals on smaller plates. User smaller serving platters. Cut calorie-dense foods into smaller portions. The more you expose yourself and your family to smaller portions, the more normal (and satisfying) they will feel.

You can also use this strategy in reverse. Use your largest servings bowls for salad and vegetables and your smallest ones for potatoes or pasta. Put out a large bowl of fruit and a small plate of miniature cookies.

The more consistently you do this, the more you'll shape your brain's idea of what enough food looks like and how much you need to feel satisfied. Not only can we reset our perceptions about what a reasonable portion size looks like, if enough of us get on board, maybe the effect will ripple outward through our families, social circles, and workplaces.

Stranger things have happened!

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Comments or questions on this week's topic or suggestions for a future episode? Send me an email or give me a call on the Nutrition Diva Listener line at 443-961-6206. If you're looking for more support and strategies for sustainable weight loss, check out my blog on Weighless.life or join our free Facebook group. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter. Don't forget to listen and subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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