Setting a goal (such as losing weight) and implementing steps to reach it (like portion control) are two very different things. When it comes to eating healthier—or eating less for that matter—it isn't always as simple as "just eating less." Why? Because what and how much we eat is influenced by so many factors—the environment in which we're eating (relaxed at home or at a party), how much food is served (a portion-controlled meal at home or a super-sized restaurant meal), and how hungry we are (just a little or famished)—mindfulness, speed, emotional state. The list could go on and on.
The good news is that YOU can control many of these factors; it's just a matter of bringing them to the forefront of your mind until they become habits. Here are nine proven tricks you can use to help yourself eat less and keep your calories in check. Over time, they'll become second nature—and your weight loss will be second to none!
1. Enjoy every bite.
Do you take time to smell the flowers? How about taking time to enjoy every meal and snack you eat? There is truth in the benefit of slowing down and appreciating the world around you, food included. Focusing on every bite can help you practice mindful eating, which has been shown to cut down on calorie intake. Slowing down between bites allows you to recognize your feelings of hunger and satiety so you have a chance to realize when you’ve had enough—then stop before you clean your plate and later regret it. Eating at a relaxed pace also means you'll chew your food more thoroughly, thus experiencing fewer digestive issues and less intestinal upset. This may take some practice. The hustle and bustle of daily life often catches up with us and sometimes it takes a conscious effort to take it easy and give your brain a chance to enjoy the food and tell you when you’re full. Until you get in the habit, try leaving a note or motivational saying on your dinner table. ACTION TIP: Set a timer. Start by finding out how quickly you currently eat your meals. You may be surprised to find out that breakfast or lunch at your computer is over within 5 or 10 minutes. Then, work on adding time to your meals, aiming for each meal to take AT LEAST 20 minutes.
2. Use smaller plates, cups and bowls.
Your mother was right about some things: Your eyes really can be bigger than your stomach. Research has shown that when people use large bowls, plates and serving utensils, they serve themselves more and consume more food. In a 2006 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 85 nutrition professionals were asked to serve themselves a bowl of ice cream. Researchers provided a variety of bowl and spoon sizes. Subjects with larger bowls served themselves 31% more ice cream; when they used a large spoon, they dished 14.5% more into their bowls. Although the super-sized plates may look slick, put those away for special occasions. When you see a large canvas, you want to fill it! ACTION TIP: Eat from smaller salad plates and small bowls for daily use. Without even realizing it, you'll serve and eat less. If your dinnerware is oversized, it might be time for new dishes that won't dwarf your properly portioned meals.
3. Pre-portion your foods.
How often do you eat straight from the bag of crackers or chips? How is it possible to track your food or know how much you eat without measuring it? That's just one reason you should never eat directly from a box or bag that contains multiple servings of a food. Grab your measuring cups and a small bowl (see #2 above) to keep your calories in check. Why? Because it's easy to overeat when you're reaching into a bottomless bag of food. ACTION TIP: Instead of reaching into the chip bag or a big bowl of chips at a party, pre-portion your snacks into a smaller container (or plate) so you know exactly how much you're eating. Then, put the big bag away (or walk away from the chip bowl). You are much less likely to overeat enjoy the smaller portion you served yourself. So dish it up, put the rest away, and taste every bite (see #1 above).
4. Know your pitfalls.
We all have food weaknesses. That food that you can't resist. The food you can't stop eating once you started. The food you have trouble saying no to, even if you're not hungry. The food you think about even when it's not in the vicinity. Maybe you'll never shake the grip this food has you on, but the first step is recognizing it. Take a minute to think about your food weaknesses. Once you know what they are, you can take extra measures to prevent overeating these particular foods, whether you avoid repeated exposure to this food or plan the rest of your day's intake planning to enjoy a bit of this favorite food.ACTION TIP: Make a list of your food weaknesses and the places you encounter them. Come up with solutions to avoid those encounters, like not venturing down the snack food aisle in the grocery store or choosing a different route to bypass the co-worker who always offers free doughnuts. Stick with your plan of avoidance until you build up the strength to face that food without giving up your control.
5. Keep a food journal.
Keeping a food diary is the best weight-loss tool. One recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that dieters who kept track of their food lost twice as much weight as those who didn't. Writing down what you eat will encourage you to think about your food choices all day, and consider what you've already eaten and what you plan to eat later. This means you'll make conscious choices more often and usually curb your calorie intake as a result. Whether you jot foods down on a sticky note, keep a small paper pad in your purse or use SparkPeople's free Nutrition Tracker, writing down everything you eat will keep your calories in check. ACTION TIP: If you don’t' already, start tracking your food. Even if you don't list all the calories, fat or carbs you eat, even a simple list can make a big difference. Don’t forget to include beverages, sauces, condiments, and other small "tastes" in your log! Extra calories can be hiding in these items.
6. Use the proper plate method.
Most meals we eat at home or in restaurants are backwards: big portions of meat and carbs and very few (if any) vegetables. If your plates put veggies in a supporting role, you're probably consuming too many calories and hurting your weight-loss efforts. Using a perfectly portioned plate can help! ACTION TIP: Fill half your plate with disease-fighting vegetables, a quarter with lean protein and a quarter with your whole grains. This method automatically piles your plate full of filling, low-calorie veggies that also provide fiber, vitamins and minerals to fight disease. It also helps control portions of starches and protein, which can sometimes become larger than necessary. Keep in mind that using a smaller dish still helps, even when using the proper plate method.
7. Pack in the protein.
Studies show that protein plays a key role in regulating food intake and appetite; people who consistently consume protein regain less weight after a significant weight loss, too. Protein helps increase feelings of fullness because it takes longer to digest. When you skip protein in your meals and snacks, those pesky hunger pangs might encourage overeating! So get into the habit of consuming protein at each meal and snack. ACTION TIP: Stick to lean sources of protein: Beans, hummus, egg whites, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products (cottage cheese, yogurt, cheese, and milk) can all give you muscle-building proteins without added fat.
8. Doggy bag it.
Portions served at most restaurants set you up for overeating. Sure, we want a good deal for our money, but it often comes at the price—our health. A full meal can contain more than 1,200 calories at some eateries, and that’s before dessert. Even if you have the best intentions to eat only half of your meal when it arrives, it can be hard to stop or know when you've reached the halfway point—especially if you're distracted while talking with friends and family. ACTION TIP: Take your good intentions one step further. Ask your server to pack up half of your meal before it hits the table. That way, you'll stop when you're halfway done and still have leftovers for tomorrow. It works because it's a clear "stop sign" in your meal (like #3 above) and most people aren't likely to dig into their doggy bag or take-out box before leaving the restaurant.
9. Eat breakfast.
People say breakfast is the most important meal of the day for good reason. Studies show that people who eat breakfast have a lower BMI (body mass index) and consume fewer total calories each day than people who skip breakfast altogether. A professor at the University of Texas found that eating earlier in the day leads to lower total intake throughout the day. A common explanation is that eating breakfast allows a person to feel less hungry throughout the day. Another is that those who skip breakfast allow for “extra calories” later in the day because they skipped a meal, but in reality end up overshooting their energy goal. Whatever the reason, eating breakfast IS part of a healthy lifestyle and an important factor in healthy weight maintenance. ACTION TIP: Many people simply don't "feel hungry" in the morning or don't like how breakfast makes them feel. Start small. You CAN retrain your body to feel hungry and enjoy breakfast. Soon, you'll wonder how you ever skipped breakfast in the first place! Start with thesequick and healthy breakfast ideas.
With these tools as your defense, you’ll be on your way to a healthy weight in no time! Jot them down in your journal or keep them on a small sticky note to refer to when you’re out. With a little practice, you’ll finally be able to control your calorie intake without feeling deprived—or hungry!
-- By Sarah Haan, Registered Dietitian and Nicole Nichols, Health Educator
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Wansink B, Van Ittersum K, Painter JE. "Ice cream illusions: bowls, spoons and self-served portion sizes." American Journal of Preventitve Medicine. 2006 Sep 31 (3): 240-3