Portion control may sound like the weight-loss tip you've been hearing about since, well, forever, but there's a good reason why: It works. Over the past 20 years, portion sizes have increased more than twofold in America, per the National Institutes of Health. And so have obesity rates.
Of course, there are a whole host of factors that contribute to our health (hello, genes and screen time), but there's no doubt that out-of-control portions are partially to blame.
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"We were all born with an innate ability to regulate hunger and satiety, and our bodies are capable of telling us how much to eat," Jennifer Maeng, RD, CDN, New York City-based nutritionist and co-founder of Chelsea Nutrition, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "But many of us have lost that connection with our bodies and now let our emotions, stress and portions determine how much we eat."
The good news? The right portion control strategies can help get you back on track. Below, six common portion control mistakes people make, plus how to master mindless eating and portion distortion for good.
1. You Mindlessly Munch All Day
The mistake: "We are more distracted than ever at mealtimes due to our fast-paced, stressful lives and technology," says Laura Burak, RDN, a Long Island-based dietitian. When we're not present at mealtimes, it's way easier for us to overeat, both in the moment and afterward.
"If we are doing other things while eating, we not only tend to eat too quickly, but our minds and bodies don't register [how much] we just ate, which can then lead to more overeating later," says Burak.
There's research to back Burak up. A review published February 2013 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at 24 studies and found that eating when distracted was associated with a moderate increase in immediate intake and an even greater increase in intake later on in the day.
Fix it: To counteract this double whammy, sit down and focus on eating (and nothing else) at mealtimes. If you're new to mindful eating, set a timer for 20 minutes and use the entire time to consume a (normal-sized) meal, suggests Harvard Health Publishing. Another idea: use chopsticks instead of your usual utensils to slow yourself down and better tune in to your hunger cues.
2. You Forget Restaurant Portions Are Supersized
The mistake: Imagine this: You're at the Cheesecake Factory with friends and you're feeling virtuous, so you opt for a vegan Cobb salad for dinner. While it sounds like a smart choice, the dish actually serves up almost 1,100 calories and a staggering 89 grams of fat. Oops.
"Giant restaurant portions are just one of the many reasons we have a very distorted sense of what an appropriate portion really looks like," says Burak. The best way to outsmart supersized meals? Come in with a plan.
Fix it: First things first: "Try to have a snack within two hours before your meal out so you don't head to the restaurant famished, dive into the bread basket, order unhealthy choices on the menu and end up overeating," says Burak. "Start with foods that have a high water content, like a salad or a veggie-based soup, or choose a starter that includes protein, such as shrimp cocktail or anything from the raw bar to fill you up first."
Try to construct a balanced plate no matter where you're eating. "I like to suggest our Chelsea Nutrition Plate Method," says Maeng. "Using a nine-inch plate, make half your plate non-starchy vegetables, one-quarter lean protein and one-quarter starchy vegetables or whole grains." Remember: A serving of protein is about four ounces, or the size of a deck of cards.
Since restaurant and take-out portions can be two to three times the recommended serving size, Maeng also encourages clients to explore menu items outside of entree options, mixing and matching healthy sides and appetizers instead of having a massive entree.
3. You Eat in Front of a Screen
The mistake: According to a 2018 report by Nielsen, Americans spend more than 11 hours per day consuming digital media. It should come as a surprise to no one that all that time spent in front of screens is only making our eating habits worse.
Fix it: Avoid watching TV or scrolling on your phone at mealtimes. If you're someone who has to eat lunch at your computer during the workweek, consider planning ahead to avoid overeating while you zone out. "A little prep will always go a long way," says Burak. "Take your week one day at a time and plan when and where you can eat on that particular day. Make sure to eat something nutritious that contains fiber, protein and healthy fats."
Be strategic about snacks, too. Pack your own pre-portioned noshes or mix high- and low-calorie snacks, like chocolate chips with popcorn, or half chips and half raw veggies with guacamole, suggests Maeng. "Go for foods with stronger flavors, like spiced crunchy chickpeas rather than mild-flavored crackers or chips."
If you tend to make a habit of mindless eating, try occupying yourself with alternatives. "I love recommending flavor-packed teas such as chai with warm milk, hibiscus or even cinnamon apple," says Maeng. "Foods that require extra chewing time, like gum, can also be helpful for eating less."
4. You’re Unaware of Proper Portion Sizes
The mistake: Does anyone actually eat one cup of pasta at a time? We didn't think so, but that's the recommended serving size and it's only about the size of your fist. Yes, really.
"Most of my clients have no idea what a standard portion looks like," says Burak. "Once I physically show them how much a 'serving' of cereal or pasta or steak really is for optimal health, they are shocked at how much more they eat."
Fix it: To familiarize yourself with proper portion sizes, invest in a set each of liquid and dry measuring cups (there's a difference between the two). Practice measuring out recommended servings of some of the foods you eat all the time. For example, if you add almond butter to your oatmeal every morning, physically measure out two tablespoons to get a sense of the amount in one serving.
There's no need to whip out the measuring cups at every meal. Simply try them out so you can eyeball smarter servings moving forward. "There is no better tool than listening to your mind and body to show you how much food you need, but this practice of intuitive eating can take a great deal of time and patience," adds Burak. "Eventually, when you begin to pay attention, you will discover that your body is completely capable of telling you how much you need without ever having to count or measure anything."
5. You Eat Straight from the Box
The mistake: When we eat straight from a bag of chips (or box of chocolates, or jar of peanut butter), it's nearly impossible to keep track of how much food we are actually consuming.
"Think about movie theater popcorn," says Burak. "We enjoy the show and munch away out of a huge tub of popcorn without a care."
Fix it: Burak encourages clients to opt for single-serving bags of snack foods that are easy to overeat, like granola, popcorn, nuts and nut butters. "When we're given a set amount of food, it helps teach us what a 'normal' portion really looks like," she says.
6. You Think Portions Don’t Apply to Healthy Foods
The mistake: "People tend to eat larger portions of foods that are considered or known to be healthy, like avocado, nuts, dried fruit and coconut," notes Maeng. "Avocado toast with eggs at some restaurants can be over 1,000 calories and an innocent kale Caesar salad can be more than 700 calories."
Fix it: Burak agrees. "Even if you begin to make healthier choices, such as switching from white bread to fresh whole-grain bread, it doesn't mean that you can eat more of it," she says. "Some people think they can eat more of the healthy stuff, but it will still add up. The only food you are not likely to ever overeat are vegetables, so keep piling them on."
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Portion Distortion"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Distracted Eating May Add to Weight Gain"
- Neilsen: "Time Flies: U.S. Adults Now Spend Nearly Half a Day Interacting With Media"
- American Psychological Association: “The Nation’s Childhood Obesity Epidemic: Health Disparities in the Making”
- American Journal of Public Health: “The Contribution of Expanding Portion Sizes to the US Obesity Epidemic”
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “Eating Attentively: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Effect of Food Intake Memory and Awareness on Eating”