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How can I control the amount that I eat?


Trick your brain, and train your brain.

One of the reasons there is so much obesity in this country is that Americans tend to eat huge portions of food. Not surprisingly, when people are served larger portions of food, they tend to ingest more calories (1). This is true for children, as well as for adults (2,3). We Americans eat in a very supersized manner.

For most of us, though, being on a diet where portions are strictly limited is anxiety-provoking and unsustainable. This is certainly true for me. Just hearing the term “portion control,” makes me feel like I’m being controlled and not being allowed to eat enough, which means deprivation, which ultimately leads to failure with regard to eating in a healthy way, both physically and psychologically. I’m a high-volume eater. If I think that I’m not going to eat enough to feel satisfied, I’m going to feel anxious, unhappy, and unwilling to repeat that experience. Maybe that’s why intuitive eating doesn’t work – for me. My intuition points me in the way of grilled cheese sandwiches and endless Hershey’s Kisses.

So what’s a person to do? What actually works for both adults and kids to help them eat smaller portions of less healthy foods? I’m going to tell you about four ways that have been shown to be successful. The first three have been demonstrated through actual scientific research on visual cues – and even optical illusions (4); and the fourth is based on my own and my co-author Jae’s experiences with losing 30 and 140 pounds, respectively, and not gaining it back over a period of several years:

1.Use smaller plates, bowls, and utensils for less unhealthy foods.

Using smaller plates tricks your brain—and your stomach—into thinking you have a larger portion. It has been found that people actually do want more and eat more when your food is served on larger plates and your drinks in larger glasses (5). On that same theme, consider using plates with rims – that will make the portion size look larger (the “Delboeuf Illusion”).

2.Drink from tall, thin, small glasses and mugs.

Here’s another optical illusion: both adults and children perceive tall, thin containers as holding more liquid than do short wide containers of the same volume. So unless you’re drinking water,

Choose a tall, thin glass.

3.Limit screen time in general and while eating in particular

Television and other screen media have an enormous impact on eating behavior, energy intake and weight. In fact, screen watching may be one of the most modifiable causes of obesity, particularly in children. Why? Because eating while watching a screen leads to mindless eating, where you don’t even realize that you’re getting full – you just keep eating until the show is over or the bowl is empty. Also, children in particular are extremely vulnerable to food advertising, mascots, etc. And all that advertising is for processed food – not apples and carrots.

4.It’s all about the vegetables

If you’re a high-volume eater like I am, then eat high volumes of healthy foods that are not calorie dense, by which I mean non-starchy vegetables. For me (and almost every person I know who has experienced successful, long-term weight loss), vegetables are the key to avoiding hunger and that unsustainable sense of deprivation. I go a step further: at every meal, I eat all my vegetables first in order buy some time before I move on to the more calorie-dense foods. That time gives my stomach and my brain a chance to begin to register fullness and to give me time to feel less desperate about wanting to eat everything in sight.

No, I do not eat unlimited portions of unhealthy foods – or even healthy calorie-dense foods, like beans and nuts. However, notice that I say do not instead of cannot. The choice is still mine. I don’t feel like I’m being controlled, and I don’t feel like I’m being deprived. We humans are hard-wired to avoid deprivation – so set yourself up for success!


(1)Zuraikat FM, Roe LS, Sanchez CE, Rolls BJ. Comparing the portion size effect in women with and without extended training in portion control: A follow-up to the Portion-Control Strategies Trial. Appetite. 2018;123:334-342. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2018.01.012

(2)Small L, Lane H, Vaughan L, Melnyk B, McBurnett D. A systematic review of the evidence: the effects of portion size manipulation with children and portion education/training interventions on dietary intake with adults. Worldviews Evid Based Nurs. 2013;10(2):69-81. doi:10.1111/j.1741-6787.2012.00257.

(3)Orlet Fisher J, Rolls BJ, Birch LL. Children’s bite size and intake of an entrée are greater with large portions than with age-appropriate or self-selected portions. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;77(5):1164-1170. doi:10.1093/ajcn/77.5.1164

(4)Robinson TN, Matheson DM. Environmental strategies for portion control in children. Appetite. 2015;88:33-38. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2014.12.001

(5)Hollands CJ et al. Portion, package or tableware size for changing selection and consumption of food, alcohol and tobacco. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2015; (9):CD011045. Doi: 10.1002/1465.