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Portion Control: Weight Loss Solution or Just Another Source of Shame?

Americans tend to eat huge portions of food (1). All-you-can-eat buffets have great appeal, even though the food is usually mediocre at best. People go to the movies and get a soda the size of a kiddie pool and a bucket of popcorn the size of an actual bucket. Having said that, being on a diet where portions are strictly limited is, for most people, anxiety-provoking and unacceptable.

“Portion control,” to me, sounds like it means I’m not allowed to eat enough and am left feeling hungry. Using the typical “diet” model, this means deprivation, which ultimately means failure. I’m a high-volume eater; and if I think I’m not going to be able to eat enough to feel satisfied, I’m going to feel anxious and unhappy and unwilling to repeat that experience. 

Having said that, if people regularly eat large portions of many foods, with the exception of non-starchy vegetables and fruits, they’re likely to gain weight. And, of course, if they regularly eat large portions of unhealthy foods, then they’re also mortgaging their health.

So what’s the solution? There are several, actually. Here are the ones that work for me:

  • Eat Your Vegetables

I eat a lot of them; and at every meal, I eat all the vegetables before I eat anything else. I want to get a little full, to let my brain have awareness of that fullness, and to buy some time before I move on to the more calorie-dense food. 

Let’s take that photograph of the spareribs, fries, tomatoes, and pickles. If I get invited to a barbeque, and this is what is served to me, here’s how I handle the situation. First, I say “thank you” to my host because I think ribs are the most delicious food in the world (but I would never order them myself because they are so very unhealthy and so very tempting). Then, I eat the tomatoes and pickles. Every single tomato and every single pickle. While I do that, I make my action plan.  I decide how many ribs and how many fries I’m going to eat. And then I stick with the plan. I’ve made a decision for myself, not offered a suggestion. And then I enjoy each bite. 

If, instead, I had started out with a sparerib, I would very, very much want a second – and a third, and a fourth – and would have zero interest in anything else. Except maybe the fries. By starting with the tomatoes and pickles, and by eating all of them, then eating just a couple of ribs doesn’t feel like “portion control” – it just feels like enough.

Think about what happens when you’re served an enormous amount of food. Maybe you eat all of it because you “hate wasting food.” Come on; you know that’s really not a valid argument. If you habitually clean your overflowing plate, there’s a good chance you’re increasing your risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer and arthritis. Talk about waste.  If you don’t want to waste food, then perhaps you can simply take some home for later. And if you don’t or can’t take home the extra food? Then don’t worry about it.  Eating more food than you need isn’t good for you or anyone else. You’re not responsible for the amount of food someone serves you. Eating extra restaurant food certainly won’t save you any money — and think about the money you’ll be saving by not needing to buy medication for diabetes or high blood pressure. 

  • Know thyself

Diet “experts” say things like, “You can eat anything you like; just eat it in moderation.” Really? Eating delicious sugary, fatty foods “in moderation” is not possible for me. In order to stop eating sugary processed foods, I had to stop completely. When I tried to just cut down, I was overwhelmed with “needing” more. I learned that a gradual decrease was impossible — for me. I also learned something that remains crucial for me to this day: I tell myself that in order to take care of myself, I’m choosing not to eat these foods, not that I can’t eat these foods. Jae had much the same experience. Here’s what she has to say about this:

Jae—There are certain foods that I just don’t allow in my house. Ever. I know that if I have a box of crackers in my house, I will eat every single cracker in one sitting. Chocolate? Gone. Tortilla chips? Same thing. But here’s the point I want to make – I know this about myself. So I have made strategies so that I don’t put myself in the situation where this is even an issue. Not even the little prepackaged single servings (because honestly I don’t care one bit if it’s individually packaged — there’s nothing stopping me from going back to the box and grabbing another one). 

That doesn’t mean I never let myself have an unhealthy treat. I really love Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. If I want to have one, then I select a convenience store approximately two miles away from my house. If I really just need that damn Reese’s, then I have to get out of my house and walk there to get it. Yeah, there’s a grocery store three blocks away, but I make myself to go to the far-away store. That way I get some exercise in, and I have to make a big effort if I really want that candy.

  • Trick Your Eye

There is one easy, proven way of controlling portions, though, and that’s to use smaller plates, bowls, glasses, and silverware for less unhealthy foods. Using smaller plates tricks your brain — and your stomach — into thinking you have a larger portion. You actually do want more and eat more when your food is served on larger plates and your drinks are in larger glasses. This is true for children as well (2). Interestingly, when people eat this way, they don’t feel hungrier at the end of a meal.

  •  Train Your Brain

Largely because of enormous portions served in restaurants in this country, we have come to have a distorted notion of what is a “normal” portion size. In fact, though, studies show that when people are served smaller portions over time, they come to shift their concept of “normal.” Even more important, just as with smaller plates, they do not tend to feel hungrier (3,4).

One Last Thing

Suppose I actually did eat that whole rack of ribs. So what? I hope I enjoyed them. No guilt, no shame. And then move right along to my most-of-the-time healthy eating.

I’d love to know your thoughts, habits, and tricks regarding this issue. Meanwhile, eat your veggies.



(1)Fallaize R, Markey O. Reducing food portion sizes in the home to tackle obesity-
is it that simple? Annals of Human Biology.

(2)Fisher JO et al. External influences on children’s self-served portions at meals. Int J Obes  2013; 37(7):954-60.

(3)Robinson E, Kerbergen I. Portion size and later food intake: evidence on the “normalizing” effect of reducing food portion sizes. Am J Clin Nutr 2018; 107(4):640-6.

(4)Haynes A et al. Visual perceptions of portion size normality and intended food consumption: A norm range model. Food Qual Prefer 2019; 72:77–85.