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What is a “Proper” Portion?

One of the most common concerns that my clients say that they struggle with is “portion control”. This exchange that I had with a client made sound familiar to you:

“It’s really hard. I portion out the food and it doesn’t look like enough, so then I take more. Sometimes, it still doesn’t look like enough, so then I take even more,” she said.
“Well, did you try to see if it was enough food?” I asked.
“I have a scale, and sometimes I weigh the food, but still it doesn’t look like enough.”

What I meant when I asked her whether she had “tried” to see if it was a proper portion, was whether or not she actually ate it. My client seemed to be only relying on external cues—her eyes and the scale—to try to determine whether she had served herself enough food.

This is very common – instead of letting our stomach and other internal cues to tell us when we are full, we eat until our plate is clean, until we reach the last crumbs at the bottom of the bag or until other people around us stop eating.

Listening to Your Stomach

Relying on your internal cues to determine your hunger and fullness, and in turn, the right portion sizes for you, takes time and practice. Your stomach needs about 15-20 minutes to signal to your brain that it’s full, so the first step is to slow down. Some people find that to practice this, it helps to put their fork down between bites, or wait until their mouth is completely empty before taking the next bite.

Worried about portions? SLOW DOWN. It takes 15-20 min for stomach to tell brain that it's full. Click To Tweet

The next step is to rethink hunger and fullness. I like to present hunger and fullness not as a dichotomy, but on a scale:

Most people find that they are ready to eat at a 3 or 4. They’re hungry, but not starving, ravenous or hangry. At 0 or 1, we’re so hungry that we’re looking for the quickest thing to stuff into our pie holes and fill us up. We’re not concerned about eating “healthy”, let alone slowing down!

Most people like to stop at a 7 or 8; you want to be full, but not uncomfortably so. At 9 or 10, this is usually what we feel like after a holiday dinner or an all-you-can-eat buffet – carrying a food baby (not to be confused with Food Babe) and moaning about how we’re not going to eat ever again!

Many clients that I’ve worked with have spent so long relying on external cues for hunger and fullness that they’ve lost touch with their internal cues. They may not know what it feels like to be hungry without starving, or full without being uncomfortable, or they may just feel that they don’t have any signals at all.

If this sounds like you, I invite you to use the Hunger/Fullness Scale to practice attuning to your own internal cues. You may even want to practice right now, using the following steps:

How to Practice Using the Hunger/Fullness Scale

  1. Ask yourself, “How would I rate my current hunger/fullness on the scale right now?”
  2. Next, ask yourself, “What is telling me that I am X number?” If your answer is “I ate X hours ago” or “It’s almost time for my next meal or snack”, I invite you to dig a little deeper: Do you notice any different sensations in your stomach? The rest of your body? Your thoughts or emotions?
  3. Make note of these different cues – you may even want to write the numbers 0-10 on a sheet of paper, and jot down your own physical/emotional signs of hunger and fullness under the corresponding number to create your own custom scale. If you find using numbers is triggering for you, I invite you to use the descriptors in the image above: “Too Hungry”, “Hungry”, “Neutral, “Satisfied”, “Too Full”, or other descriptors that you find resonate more with you.
  4. Repeat. A good place to start may be to use the scale before, during and after you eat to make it a consistent practice. Some people also find it helpful to check in before, during and after “unplanned” eating or just randomly throughout the day as a mindfulness exercise.

The Hunger/Fullness Scale is just a tool, not a hard and fast rule for eating. It can be tempting to turn this into the “Hunger/Fullness Diet“! Sometimes the portion you initially serve yourself is too little and you end up having seconds – that’s OK. Other times you think you’re still a little hungry in the middle of a meal, but after eating a bit more you feel stuffed – that’s OK. Sometimes you eat the same amount as another person, and you don’t feel the same level of fullness – that’s OK. Other times a portion that filled you up a week ago might not fill you up today – that’s OK. Sometimes you know you are full, but you eat more anyway because the food is so delicious or because you’re just in the habit of cleaning your plate – that’s OK too!

There’s so much more than fullness that makes a meal satisfying. A green salad probably won’t feel as satisfying as a steaming cup of soup on a cold day. A plate of fries might not feel as satisfying without ketchup, mayo or gravy. Often times, we get so caught up on eating “right” or eating “healthy” that we forget to listen and ask ourselves what we really want. (And sometimes, we just don’t or can’t get what we want – that’s OK, it’s just food.)

Not as simple as eat when hungry & stop when full. Many factors play into what makes a meal SATISFYING. Click To Tweet

Servings vs Portions

If you’re uncomfortable with just relying on your internal cues, some external cues can serve as a jumping off point. Serving sizes, as seen in Canada’s Food Guide or the Nutrition Facts table on food packaging, can be used to guide your portions. Though some people use the terms “servings” and “portions” interchangeably, they are actually different. A serving is a reference amount of food, like ½ cup of vegetables (as in Canada’s Food Guide) or 250 mL of a 398 mL can of soup (like you see on Nutrition Facts tables). On the other hand, a portion is what we actually eat, like a meal that might work out to 2.389 cups if you actually measured it!

It’s totally OK to eat more or less than one serving in a sitting – however, eating according to serving sizes can make it easier to compare your portions to nutrition information, if that is a concern for you.

#DYK that a 'serving' and a 'portion' are two different things? Click To Tweet
Are you attuned to your internal cues? What tools or tips have you used to help guide you? Please share your insights in the comments below!

2 Comments

  • Brittany on Apr 23, 2015 Reply

    Great post! I agree that mindful eating and listening to our bodies more important than a defined number. Thank you for sharing this info!

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