When it comes to losing weight — or just healthy eating in general — the rules around food are pretty simple: Don't overeat, control your portion sizes and listen to your body's fullness cues.
But knowing the guidelines and putting them into practice are two different things, and the latter can be a lot more difficult — especially when that extra-large slice of chocolate cake is staring you down.
Controlling your portion sizes isn't just lip service, though; there are some real benefits, both physically and financially, when it comes to dialing down the amount you're piling on your plate.
Portion Size vs. Serving Size
Before we dive into the positives that come along with portion control, let's first nail down the difference between portion size and serving size. These terms are often used interchangeably, but they're actually not the same thing, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The difference is simple: A portion size is the amount you eat, big or small, and a serving size is the amount of food you should be eating. A serving size is a standard set by a food's nutrition label, while portion size varies depending on who's dishing out the fare.
Serving sizes are most often measured out in cups or ounces. For example, one 6-ounce steak is usually considered a standard portion, but it is actually two servings of meat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
An easy way to learn portion control is to compare food portion sizes to everyday objects. For example, a serving of baked potato is the size of your fist and a serving of peanut butter is the size of a ping-pong ball, per the NIH.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the more food you're served, the more you will likely eat. So, while you adjust to eating smaller portions, switch to smaller plates, which will make your portions appear larger (and hey, you eat with your eyes first, right?). This is a small change that can make the process a little bit less daunting.
Health Benefits of Eating Smaller Portions
1. Better Blood Sugar Control
Your body turns the foods you eat — especially carbohydrates — into glucose, a type of sugar that serves as your body's primary source of energy. When you eat a large portion of food, your glucose levels rise quickly. When your bloodstream is flooded with glucose, your pancreas releases insulin to move that glucose into your cells for use.
But the faster glucose levels rise, the more likely it is that your pancreas will produce too much insulin in response, leading to low blood sugar. As a result your brain is tricked into thinking you need more glucose, and you start to feel hungry, often with a craving for sugar. You can avoid this negative cycle of high and low blood sugar — which can lead to weight gain — by eating small, frequent meals, which will help keep your glucose and insulin levels stable.
2. Increased Satiety and Weight Control
Eating smaller portions can curb cravings and help reduce overall calorie intake. Feeling satiated, or having a feeling of fullness, can affect how much you eat and how often you eat. The British Nutrition Foundation suggests eating slow and with smaller portions to feel more satiated after a meal.
Eating smaller portions also allows your body to use the food you eat immediately for energy, instead of storing excess as fat. Losing weight isn't as simple as only controlling your portion sizes, but when you learn to watch the amount of food you eat, you can begin to practice mindful eating, which can help you make healthier food choices, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
3. Improved Digestion
Many of us have been there: That moment when you're done with Thanksgiving dinner and suddenly regret eating as much as you did. Once a year might not be a big deal, but regularly eating large portions can wreak havoc on your digestive system.
The MD Anderson Cancer Center indicates a few things happen when you eat too much. Having larger portion sizes makes your stomach stretch further, and causes it to push against your other organs, which can lead to a lot of discomfort. You also run the risk of having heartburn, because having a full stomach can push hydrochloric acid back up into your esophagus. Finally, you also may produce excess gas from that big meal, which is never a good feeling.
4. Money Back in Your Pocket
Eating smaller portions can also result in financial benefits, especially when it comes to dining out.
For example, one way to practice portion control at restaurants is to order kid-sized meals, which are generally less expensive than adult meals and closer to the correct serving size you should be eating.
Adult portion sizes at restaurants can equal two, three or more servings. So, here's a pro tip: When the food is delivered to your table, ask your server for a take-away container and immediately remove at least half the food from your plate. By taking 50 percent of your entree home, you'll be getting two meals for the price of one.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Do Increased Portion Sizes Affect How Much We Eat?"
- National Institutes of Health: "Serving Sizes and Portions"
- MD Anderson Center: "What Happens When You Overeat?"
- British Nutrition Foundation: "Understanding satiety: feeling full after a meal"
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Healthy Eating and Weight"
- Havard Medical School: "8 Steps to Mindful Eating"
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: "All About the Protein Foods Group"