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More than a third of Americans are obese. A complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors are at play, and researchers have proven that overeating, among other things, may be to blame.
One way people try to curb overeating is by monitoring the serving size of meals; still, many of us misunderstand how serving sizes can affect our eating habits. I spoke with academics and dietitians to explore the concept further and try to gain some clarity.
What’s all the fuss about?
First, let’s set the record straight on what a serving size actually represents, as many of us easily confuse serving size with portion size. In fact, they describe two entirely different measurements. Food manufacturers label nutrients on a package with the help of a serving size. So if a cereal lists nutrients for a serving size of two-thirds of a bowl, that doesn’t necessarily mean we should fill two-thirds of a bowl for breakfast. “A container of food can have an accurate label connecting the available nutrients in that food to a given quantity of that food,” says dietitian Adina Pearson, R.D. “However, any given individual, on any given day may need more or less than a ‘serving size’ to feel nourished or satisfied.”
Eat smaller portions—that’s a predominant suggestion made by many weight-loss coaches. The fitness industry seems to be obsessed with this advice, but they may have a point. Research shows that portion sizes in the US have grown larger since the 1970s. “What happened was that in restaurants people like value,” says Joel Hughes, a health psychologist at Kent State University in Columbus, Ohio. “In the ‘70s and ‘80s, restaurants started selling bigger sizes because it made you happy. If you have a big hamburger or a large piece of lasagna you feel like you’re getting a good deal.”
Research has also shown that dishes have gotten bigger, and that has beefed up people’s portions as well. In fact, in an interesting study published in the International Journal of Obesity in 2010, researchers discovered that the size of bread, plates, and dishes had become larger over time in the most famous Last Supper paintings of the last millennium.
“Many people don’t realize how many cups of pasta or ounces of nuts they’re eating,” says Lisa Sheehan-Smith, professor of nutrition & food science at Middle Tennessee State University. “If the bowl holds 3 cups we fill it to the brim, even though we only needed 1.5 cups to satisfy our hunger or our caloric needs.”
Last year, the Food and Drug Administration revised its Nutrition Facts Label, which it had first created in 1993 to encourage more realistic serving sizes and to better reflect eating patterns. For example, most ice cream companies use a serving size of two-thirds of a cup but are now required to use half a cup.
While it’s unclear if there is a connection between obesity and rising portion sizes, studies have shown that larger portion sizes at restaurants and in packages result in higher calorie consumption. Basically, what research shows is this: if you hand people more food, they will eat more, irrespective how much they really need.
The anti-portion size solution
The Food Guide Pyramid developed by the US Department of Agriculture can help determine proper portions for meals, but can also be an imperfect system. “In my view, the problem with that is that you run out of patience eventually to always use a scale and a measuring cup,” says Hughes. “I don’t want to do that for the rest of my life.”
We don’t need scales or external reference guides to maintain a healthy weight and be fit. A helping of common sense and listening to our bodily signals can go a long way. Think mindful eating. There’s now proof that mindful eating can help people avoid overeating and there’s plenty of evidence which suggests that mindful eating can help with weight loss. A 2013 study published in Appetite found that people who practiced mindful eating every day consistently ate smaller portions of high-calorie foods. [Editor’s Note: if you’re keen on trying mindful eating, check out our Mindful Eating single meditation. It’ll teach you the basics.]
But Pearson warns that controlling portions is not the goal of mindful eating: “One may choose to eat less or more based on want or need, but if it is used in order to create a specific outcome like ‘eating less’ then it is no longer actually mindful but a means to an end.”
So, how do we implement mindful eating into our lives? Start by being curious. Pearson suggests asking the following questions before you put a morsel into your mouth: How hungry are you? How satisfied are you feeling?
For Hughes, it’s all about slow eating. “You would be noticing the sensations, learning to feel when you are full,” he says. “It takes 20 minutes for the blood glucose levels to rise, and if you eat very fast, you will not even know you are full before you are done eating (too much).”
While eating is a necessity, it is also an activity that can be enjoyed. If you’re relishing the grub, you may also be eating mindfully and living in the moment. “To eat mindfully, pay attention to the taste, the smell, the temperature of the food,” says Hughes.
Must we remind you to unplug from tech? Try leaving your phone and electronic gadgets in another room. “Distracted eating is not mindful,” warns Hughes. “TV, cell-phones, etc., all compete for our attention and then we aren’t paying attention to eating.”
We can still be mindful of our portions without being a stickler for portion size. “Dish up reasonable portions of food onto plates (preferably smaller ones) and sit down with your food,” says Sharon Palmer, RDN and author of “The Plant-Powered Diet”. If you feel hungry after a first helping, you can have more; and if snacking, pour snacks out on a plate or a container. Avoid eating from an open bag, if possible.
Finally, notice if you eat for reasons that aren’t biological. “When you get an urge to eat, discern whether you are actually hungry or just eating because it’s time to eat or because you’re bored,” Hughes says.
The next you want to dive headfirst into a bag of Oreos, try starting with a serving size of meditation. Ten minutes, please.
The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.
Artwork by CHRIS MARKLAND