Cutting back on portion sizes can be an effective way to trim excess calories, fat and sugar from your diet, but it can also be quite challenging. Restaurant and fast-food portions are far larger than those appropriate for a healthful diet. And try going to a party, or even simply to a friend's house for dinner, without being overfed.
Let's face it: We can't eat perfect-size portions all the time. But trying to do it more often than not is an ideal place to start. The key, of course, is learning what healthy portion sizes actually look like. Then creating new, better eating habits by leveraging techniques that help you feel full while eating less.
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Getting used to eating smaller portion sizes is essentially a matter of paying attention to what you put on your plate, over and over, until it becomes second nature. Of course, in a perfect world we'd be precisely measuring all our food before we eat it. But in the real world, it helps to have hacks.
Read more: Why Portion Control Works — and How to Get It Right
1. Aim for Satisfied, Not Stuffed
"That is a big mind shift, as most people don't think they're finished until they can't take one more bite," Amy Shapiro, RDN, CDN, the New York City-based founder of Real Nutrition, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "I remind my clients that they can always eat again later, and that helps them adjust to the idea of not being 'full.'"
2. Compare Portions to Everyday Objects
Picturing familiar objects is a simple way to get a handle on right-size portions, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). Set a deck of cards, baseball, tea cup (not a coffee mug) and four dice on your table or kitchen counter. Any serving of meat should be no bigger than the deck of cards; no serving of cheese should be larger than the four dice; pasta or rice, the tea cup; and vegetable portions should be about the size of the baseball. Compare the portion of food on your plate to the size of these items at each meal. Soon enough, you'll get accustomed to eyeballing it and won't need the visual aids.
3. Enjoy Carbs the Smart Way
"I recommend pairing your carbs with veggies and protein to feel satisfied with a smaller amount," says Shapiro. "Remember, carbs are not inherently bad. They just need to be portioned wisely."
For mashed potatoes, for example, that would be no more than a scoop about the size of your fist, she notes.
And keep in mind that the quality of carbs you consume makes a difference. Choose high-fiber, whole-grain breads and cereals to increase a sense of fullness and improve digestion.
"Don't just gobble down a sweet treat because you feel guilty you're eating it. Sit down and savor it with a cup of coffee or tea."
4. Swap Your Plates
Your new-size portions may look a bit lost on a whopping dinner plate, convincing you to take a bit more. So try using a smaller "luncheon" or salad plate, instead of a usual dinner plate, for all of your meals. Fill it up, then immediately refrigerate your leftovers so you're not tempted to go back for seconds.
5. Don't Skip Breakfast
Eat at least a small, late breakfast. "If you aren't hungry when you first wake up, you don't have to eat right away," says Shapiro. "But I do recommend eating something, if only a piece of fruit or a proper nutrition bar, within two hours."
This tactic will prevent succumbing to too-large portions at lunch and dinner, due to sugar cravings or low energy, she explains.
6. Keep Restaurant Meals in Check
In restaurants, your mantra should be "eat half," especially in casual chain eateries and diners where portions are often ridiculously big. When ordering your entree, ask your server to bring you a to-go container with your meal, and pack up half of it before you even take the first bite. Now you have a yummy lunch to take to work the next day: a money-saving bonus!
Read more: How to Practice Portion Control Even at Restaurants
7. Slow It Down
Chewing and swallowing more slowly can help you get used to smaller portions as the new norm. Sitting down and leisurely eating your food, rather than wolfing down a meal on the run, can give your body the signal that it's full and prevent overeating, according to the University of New Hampshire Extension. This practice of being engaged while eating is known as mindful eating.
Slow eating can especially pay off with sweet treats, notes Shapiro. "Don't just gobble it down because you feel guilty you're eating it. Sit down and savor it with a cup of coffee or tea."
Consult your physician before making changes to your diet to ensure that all of your nutritional needs will be met and that the effectiveness of any medications you're taking won't be compromised.