Outsmarting Yourself: Strategies for Effortless Portion Control
Taking Advantage of Your Brain’s Blindspots
Most of the time, blindspots are a bad thing. Whether you’re changing lanes or arguing politics, it’s typically better to have a handle on the full picture.
But in some circumstances, we can take advantage of our brain’s shortcomings to help us eat better and stick with new habits.
One fantastic example is portion control. In today’s post, I’m going to kick off June’s theme for the “Making the Changes That Matter” project: “Outsmarting Yourself.” Each week, I’m going to suggest a small habit shift that can painlessly transform your eating habits, by making changes that escape the notice of your unconscious mind.
This week, we’re going to focus on one incredibly simple strategy: splitting food into separate containers. I’m sure this is not a new idea for most of my readers, but some of the practical applications may be things you’ve never tried.
Why Portion Control?
First, though, let’s talk a little bit more about portion control. Why is it so important? For long-term weight management (especially if this area is a struggle for you), it is essential that you are roughly hitting a caloric target every day, on average. The caloric target is either maintenance, or a deficit (for weight loss). Of course, you could make your target a caloric surplus, if your goal were to add muscle mass – but I assume for convenience that most of my readers are going to fall into either maintenance or deficit goals.
Portion control is an essential strategy for sticking with your general caloric goal, because we typically don’t overeat on foods like broccoli, cabbage, or brussel sprouts. In fact, we often do not eat enough of these foods. Most often, we struggle to regulate our intake of processed foods like chips and cookies and chocolate, or even less processed foods like nuts.
In an ideal world, we could quickly and permanently master the strategies of perfect self-regulation, and consistently respond with high levels of self-awareness to hunger and fullness cues, allowing ourselves to peacefully stop eating when we are satisfied.
But we who have struggled with weight management know that – while these skills are important and essential – it’s smart for us to have other tools in the toolbox in addition to intuitive eating skills. There are two key biological reasons for this:
- Some foods simply do not seem to follow the rules of intuitive eating – some foods, especially those rich in combinations of salt, fat, and starch, do not always provide accurate feedback cues regarding hunger and fullness. In other words, satisfaction often does not announce itself relative to calories consumed – we often only feel full from these hyperpalatable foods once our consumption has already exceeded a reasonable level. We have to re-write the rules for satiety cues for these rich foods, building the self-awareness that – in these circumstances – “less is more.” You probably need to stop eating these foods before you are satisfied, which takes practice over time.
- Additionally, some people struggle disproportionately with cravings, and have a higher affinity for what’s known as “food reward.” In other words, some of us have a closer relationship with the dopamine spike we get in our brains than other people do, and it’s more difficult to regulate our intake of rich foods and manage cravings. I know that for many of my female clients, monthly hormone cycles play a tremendous role in this dynamic, and it can be even more intense for women with hormonal imbalances caused by conditions like PCOS. You may legitimately struggle with more cravings than the average person – it’s not all in your head. If you think this applies to you, be aware that having as many tools as possible to aid in self-regulation will create long-term success and a healthier relationship with food, rather than relying solely on willpower or a rigid diet.
Finally, let’s be honest that most of us – hormonal issues aside – are fantastically bad at eyeballing portions. Trying to estimate the caloric value of food is like entering the contest for guessing the number of M&M’s in the jar. We’re just not great at it.
Your brain’s blindspot, essentially, is that it typically does not know the difference between portion sizes just by looking at them. Eyeballing is a skill that must be built.
The magic is that it is this blindspot that we can leverage for our benefit, because sometimes your brain truly doesn’t know the difference between “enough” and “too much,” and you can easily make changes to your portions without feeling deprived.
Deciding “Enough” in Advance
Don’t get me wrong – I do strongly believe that cultivating a close and accurate relationship with hunger and fullness cues is an important part of improving your relationship with food. It’s essential to long-term weight management and a balanced mindset.
However, most of my new clients are not familiar with the sensations satisfaction without fullness – it’s possible to not have a conscious awareness of what physical sensations signify satisfaction, nor of what visual portions of food could possibly correlate with these subtle sensations of “enough.”
To solve this, the purposeful engineering of food intake in controlled situations allows them to learn to recognize the sensations of satisfaction and develop their eyeballing skills, so that they can practice it in less-controlled situations with confidence and ease.
In other words, sometimes it’s important to decide what’s “enough” in advance, to make life and decision-making easier, and to relieve the load placed on willpower.
Enter portion control.
Two Strategies for Using Containers
That being said, keep in mind that using separate containers is a process and a practice. The goal of using containers is to develop intuitive skills, but this doesn’t mean that the use of containers (as a practice) ever needs to be discarded, as though a graduation has occurred.
Instead, it can be one excellent tool for improving the big picture of your eating, by taking pressure off of your conscious willpower exertion on a day-to-day basis.
Here are two ways to use containers that will help you achieve your health and fitness goals:
When you cook fresh for dinner, divide food into individual, portion-sized containers first, and serve the remaining portions onto plates for dinner.
Many “diet tips” advise not eating “family style,” with the pot of food in the center of the table. This is good. However, I would take it one step further, and advise being even more strategic. Instead of serving the plates directly from the pot and then keeping the leftovers in one big container in the refrigerator, be proactive at the beginning of the process. Based on the ingredients that you used, decide in advance how many servings you are making, and be sure to divide the food into that many servings directly into containers.
For example, if you cooked one pound of pasta, that is technically eight servings of pasta for the average person. How easy is it, however, to eat it as four servings, if you’re not intentional?
These are the small shifts that make weight management very easy. Your brain does not care whether there are two ounces or four ounces of pasta on your plate. The pasta is enjoyable either way, but it’s also easy to overeat unnecessarily. By taking the extra step of planning, dividing in advance, and using individual portion-sized containers, you sidestep a double portion – no willpower required.
Looking for great containers? Check out my “Recommended Materials” page for glass meal prep containers, under “Kitchen Equipment.”
I highly recommend buying snacks that are pre-portioned in advance. On the other hand, it’s often cheaper to buy the family-size bag – but make sure you’re also buying snack bags to portion them.
When we buy large bags of chips or pretzels or nuts, it’s easy to look at the nutrition label and think, “Wow, these are only 100 calories a serving! These are great!” However, it’s all for naught if you eat 3-4 servings without intending to.
My husband and I call it a “bagging party.” It’s a weekly or bi-weekly ritual where we open the bags of pretzels or chips or crackers and put them directly into Ziploc bags. This is especially important, I think, with foods that we mentally discount because they are “healthy,” like nuts or “whole grain” crackers or “gluten-free” foods.
When we pre-portion crunchy, tasty snacks, we are taking advantage of our brain’s eyeballing blindspot, because you know from experience that you do not enjoy four servings more than you enjoy one. As long as you do not have to exert willpower to abstain from the additional servings, your brain does not know the difference.
My one caveat for these strategies is that your brain does not feel the difference between “enough” and “a little too much,” but it will fight back with a vengeance if you fall into the “not enough” range. If your caloric deficit becomes too large, your brain will defend against too-rapid weight loss by spiking more cravings, and you may find that you struggle with binge eating episodes. So my advice is to be moderate in your approach, aiming for a caloric deficit that is just large enough to lose weight (if that’s your goal), but not so large that your body senses the difference.
You can’t completely cheat the system, because your body knows, and your plans will backfire.
Follow-Up Questions from Last Week
If you want to jump into this free healthy living project (with weekly strategies to try out), sign up on this page to get these questions delivered directly to your inbox each week!
Last week in “Replacing Comfort Food with Real Comfort,” we explored the strategies of addressing emotional or comfort eating.
Answer the following questions about your experiences with last week’s post:
- Question 1: Do you ever find yourself eating for emotional reasons? Of the list in the post, which feelings or mental spaces “trigger” emotional eating for you?
- Question 2: Which of the three strategies sound the most relevant to you: relationships/connection, solo hobbies, or productivity?
- Question 3: What is your action plan?