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What is a “Proper” Portion?

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!
My Top 5 Takeaways from the Body Image Workshop #BIW

My Top 5 Takeaways from the Body Image Workshop #BIW

It’s been a week since about 40 HAES® dietitians and clinicians descended on NYC for the Body Image Workshop hosted by veteran HAES® and eating disorder dietitians, Marci Evans and Fiona Sutherland. This was a workshop unlike any that I’ve attended before, not only because of the subject matter (Are dietitians even *allowed* to do body image work?) but also because I already “knew” at least half of the other attendees through social media. Instead of arriving to a quiet classroom where everyone kept to themselves, there was lots of chatters and hugs all around, despite the early start.

Instead of handouts, Fiona made us some pretty workbooks!

Body Image Workshop

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I Moustache You a Question… About Soy.

I Moustache You a Question… About Soy.

It’s Movember again! This annual campaign raises funds and awareness for men’s health issues, including prostate and testicular cancers, and mental health. It’s also a chance to find out which of the men in your life can grow lush mo’s, and who can only sprout a few chin hairs.

I find that often when I talk about nutrition and men’s health, the conversation turns to soy… and whether it can be harmful for men.
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Sometimes, Self Care Feels Like Work

Sometimes, Self Care Feels Like Work

With our busy, whirlwind lives, it seems like self care should be an oasis. An opportunity to slow down, unplug, take a break. Something that comes naturally.

In many cases, self care does feel that way. Sometimes, however, self care can take a little more effort, and that’s OK.

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What to Do When You’re Off Your Regular Routine

What to Do When You’re Off Your Regular Routine

Between fighting a nagging cold and moving into a new house, to say that I’ve been off my regular routine is an understatement. I’ve been painting, packing and unpacking instead of getting fluids and rest, I haven’t been going to the gym, and late dinners have become the norm.

Of course, it doesn’t always take a big event to knock someone off their regular routine. Even something as small as a traffic jam or sleeping in on the weekend can throw a wrench in the best laid plans.

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Why the ‘80% Nutrition, 20% Exercise’ Formula is Bunk

Why the ‘80% Nutrition, 20% Exercise’ Formula is Bunk

Several months ago, I wrote about how I was “retiring the ’80/20 Rule’” – the one where you eat healthy 80% of the time and allow yourself to eat less healthy 20% of the time. While the intentions behind this “rule” are good, I find that it doesn’t always help with “all-or-nothing”/perfectionistic type thinking. Some people have twisted the 80/20 Rule to mean, “I need to be 100% perfect during my 80%, so that I can go all out during my 20%.” Instead, it’s simpler and less triggering to say, “You don’t need to be perfect in order to be healthy.”

Here’s another “80/20 Rule” that needs to be thrown in the bin – that health is “80% nutrition, 20% exercise”

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Health Canada Just Banned Trans Fats. Should Sugar Be Next?

Health Canada Just Banned Trans Fats. Should Sugar Be Next?

Last week, I shared on social media that Health Canada will be banning the use of partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) in food, effectively banning artificial trans fats from our food supply. On Twitter someone replied, “Next up, sugar.” I was tempted to tweet back, “I hope not!” But unsure whether they were being serious or just tongue-in-cheek, I decided to not incite a Twitter war and blog about it instead.

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Can You Be Addicted to Food? {An Open Letter to CBC’s White Coat, Black Art}

Can You Be Addicted to Food? {An Open Letter to CBC’s White Coat, Black Art}

Dear Dr. Goldman & the White Coat, Black Art team:

As a registered dietitian, certified Intuitive Eating counselor and CBC fan, I listened to the season premiere of White Coat, Black Art with interest. “Food addiction” is indeed a controversial topic, and I was hoping that more airtime could’ve been given to arguments against food addiction as a diagnosis and an abstinence-based treatment.

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Canada is Getting a New Food Guide! Here’s What You Need to Know

Canada is Getting a New Food Guide! Here’s What You Need to Know

Let me start this post by saying that it’s a common misconception that dietitians base all of their recommendations on Canada’s Food Guide. Most of the dietitians I know, myself included, rarely use it in their practice. In fact, if there’s one thing that dietitians, health professionals and those who make more dubious nutrition claims seem to agree on, it might just be hating on Canada’s Food Guide.

With concerns ranging from including fruit juice as a serving of fruit to industry influence, our 10-year-old Food Guide is certainly due for an update.
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Can Meal Planning and Meal Prep Work with Intuitive Eating?

Can Meal Planning and Meal Prep Work with Intuitive Eating?

At first glance, it would appear that Intuitive Eating and meal planning/meal prep don’t mix.

Intuitive Eating is about listening to your body’s signals to help you decide what and how much to eat; meal planning and meal prep “decide” that for you ahead of time.

The first principle of Intuitive Eating is “reject the diet mentality”; meal plans, meal prep and meal planning are often the cornerstones of diets, weight loss programs or “lifestyle changes” to help people lose weight.

So why would I still have the gall to identify as an Intuitive Eater while meal planning every week?

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