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Why You Struggle with Portion Control

The way our brains think about food is complicated and unintuitive. As you pursue optimal health and work to reach a healthy weight, you have probably waged internal battles between what you want on a conscious level and some indescribable, unspoken urges that pull you in the opposite direction of where you intend to go.

Part of this dynamic are the habits you have built and strengthened over years and years of repetition, and your body naturally prefers those familiar loops over something new. The other part of this dynamic is our caveman programming, hardwired survival behaviors that made a lot of sense when we were hunting and gathering to survive but are less practical in a world where food isn’t hard to find and where technology makes our lives easier with each passing day.

This leads to us answering questions from the field that follow a similar theme: How do I stick to healthy portions instead of overeating?

The answer is straightforward, which doesn’t make the doing easy, but it helps us map an effective plan for healthy portions. If you struggle with overeating, here are two of the biggest steps you can take:

  • Use smaller serving dishes (plates, bowls, cups, and so on)
  • Physically separate yourself from the source of food (don’t eat in the kitchen where more food is right in front of you)

That advice is simple enough, but why we make this recommendation is important for us to explore because it helps you to make healthier choices long before the urge to just finish the entire bag of chips in one sitting takes hold. Let’s start at the beginning:

  1. Our brains struggle to think of food in fractions. The fancy word for this is “unit bias,” which is to say we tend to think of a group of food items as one unit, and we want to eat that entire unit. In one study, participants were given spoons to scoop out a serving of M&Ms. With no limitations on servings placed on them, people with bigger spoons naturally ate more M&Ms. In other words, they wanted to fill the spoon, and eat everything in the spoon. This is also why if you open a big bag of chips, you are likely to eat the entire bag.

  2. Our brains are bad at recognizing how much we have actually eaten. Put another way, it’s difficult for us to make a connection between what we see visually and how full we feel as we eat. In a study using self-refilling soup bowls, participants who didn’t realize their bowl was slowly refilling as they ate consumed 73% more soup than participants eating from normal bowls without ever realizing, and they reported feeling comfortably full!

So, this struggle with unit bias combined with a readily accessible stream of food creates an interesting challenge that is made even more difficult by the direction food businesses. Behavioral psychologist Matt Wallaert summed it up well in an interview for NPR:

“Nobody eats one and a quarter apples, right? The unit is an apple. And so you eat an apple. And so you can apply that same sort of experimental logic to things like bags of chips. And you can actually make a bag of chips 20 percent bigger, and 20 percent smaller. And people still eat one bag of chips, and they eat until it’s done.”

To conquer portion control, follow the plate system in Dr. A’s Habits of Health, and follow all of our additional tips for eating as well (such as eating in a well-lit space away from the kitchen). OPTAVIA meals are a powerful tool here because the portions are set for you, but as you look at the long-term and perhaps buy food for the rest of the family, consider buying smaller amounts and giving away your oversized dinning ware.

You can beat your programming!

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