To Eat or Not to Eat (that next mouthful): That is the Question!

There’s so much discussion about which foods are most healthful and which foods lead to weight gain that sometimes the conversation loses focus over the real issue to be addressed: how much is enough?

There are many good studies that indicate Americans have become accustomed to eating larger and larger portion sizes over the last few decades. However, looking even further back, we may be able to see that this eating behavior was a concern as far back as ancient times. Gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins, was defined as an inordinate desire to consume more than that which one requires. This concern of our ancient forefathers is one that still concerns many of us today.

Our ancient forefathers might be quite surprised at how often their descendants engage in gluttony, as evidenced by the data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html#Prevalence Much like the ancients, our current leaders also encourage us to “enjoy our food, but eat less and avoid oversized portions”.  However, changing eating behavior is difficult and probably much more complex than ever before. In fact, with our abundant food supply, few would argue that over consuming our favorite foods contributes to the global epidemic of overweight and obesity and is a good starting point for reversing this health threatening trend.

So, the issue becomes what is the right amount to eat? Insights from the IFIC Foundation’s 2013 Food and Health Survey indicate that 73% of respondents are trying to consume smaller portions as a way to improve their diet.  For health practitioners who often hear from their clients and/or patients “Is there a guide for those who can no longer trust their appetite to correctly judge healthful portion sizes?” The answer is yes!

The USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion’s website http://www.choosemyplate.gov/weight-management-calories/weight-management/better-choices/decrease-portions.html  offers some examples of how to reduce larger than necessary portions:

Step 1: Determine how much you’re eating: Measure how much the bowls, glasses, cups, and plates you regularly use hold. Pour your breakfast cereal into your regular bowl.  Then, pour it into a measuring cup.  How many cups of cereal do you eat each day? 

Step 2: Measure a fixed amount of some foods and drinks to see what they look like in your glasses and plates. For example, measure 1 cup of juice to see what 1 cup of liquid looks like in your favorite glass.

Step 3: Start by portioning out small amounts to eat and drink.  Only go back for more if you are still hungry. 

Step 4: Pay attention to feelings of hunger. Stop eating when you are satisfied, not full. If there is still food on your plate or on the table, put it away, throw it out or push it far away.

So many of us, however, eat food prepared by others either in restaurants or in a packaged, prepared form when there’s no time to cook. Here are some suggestions for when you’re not at home:

  • Order a smaller size option, when it's available.
  • Manage larger portions by sharing or taking home part of your meal.
  • Don’t allow food to tempt your resolve—ask your server to serve a half portion and box the remainder when ordering.  Re-wrap prepared foods in single serving portions.
  • If you tend to overeat at a certain time of day or when you’re in a particular place or mood, prepare by avoiding those triggers or change your routine.
  • If you can’t resist eating extra portions when socializing, try serving others or cleaning up rather than surrounding yourself with temptation.
  • Some people who overeat when stressed or upset, find it relaxing to take a walk, call a friend or read a book before visiting the kitchen, when they return from work or school.
  • When birthdays or celebrations lead to consuming extra calories, balance those calories with increased physical activity and return to a healthful eating pattern as soon as possible.

Another resource for tips to help you eat an appropriate serving size is the Weight Control Information Network, an information service of the National Institutes of Health.  They offer these suggestions: http://www.win.niddk.nih.gov/publications/justenough.htm#b.

  • Take the amount of food that is equal to one serving, according to the food label, and eat it off a plate instead of eating straight out of a large box or bag.
  • Avoid eating in front of the TV or while busy with other activities. Pay attention to what you are eating, chew your food well and enjoy the smell and taste of your food.
  • Eat slowly so your brain can get the message when your stomach is full.
  • Try using smaller dishes, bowls, and glasses. This way, when you fill up your plate or glass, you will be eating and drinking less.
  • Control your intake of higher-fat, higher-calorie parts of a meal. Take seconds of vegetables and salads (watch the toppings and dressing) instead of desserts and dishes with heavy sauces.
  • When cooking in large batches, freeze food that you will not serve right away.
  • Try to eat meals at regular times. Skipping meals or leaving large gaps of time between meals may lead you to eat larger amounts of food the next time you eat.
  • When buying snacks, choose fruit or single-serving prepackaged items and foods that are lower-calorie options. If you buy larger bags or boxes of snacks, divide the items into single-serve packages right away so you won't be tempted to overeat.
  • When you do have a treat like chips or ice cream, measure out only one serving as shown by the food label. Eat only 1/2 cup of ice cream or 1 ounce of chips, eat them slowly, and enjoy them!

There’s no one right answer for everyone. Recognizing what is a healthful portion size for the foods you eat frequently will give you a stopping point when eating. Then, find another activity or interest, rather than eating more, to give your internal sensors a chance to recognize that you’ve eaten enough.

These 3 simple tips, based on research sponsored by The Dietary Guidelines Alliance, can help you to eat more healthfully and make your forefathers proud:

Serve smaller portions to help curb calories and keep your weight on the right track.

Be a role model for your children.

Show your family how to savor their favorite higher calorie foods and beverages by enjoying smaller portions, together.