How much food do we really need, and how can we avoid eating too much? Here you will find useful information and tips that can make it easier to eat good food in moderate portions.
There has long been a great focus on “yes” food and “no” food – or “healthy” and “unhealthy” foods. However, whether a food is healthy or unhealthy depends on who is eating it, the needs this person has and not least of all; how much you eat. All foods can be unhealthy is you eat too much of them or if you exclude other types of food from your diet.
Some people who go on a diet will fall off the wagon because they make radical changes to their eating habits but are unable to sustain those changes over time, or deny themselves food they love. A better strategy could be to treat yourself to all kinds of food, but to limit calorie-rich foods to very small portions. That would allow you to be happy about what you eat and get a varied food intake even if you are watching what you eat. One example of this is to limit the intake of sweets to one day per week – you are still allowed to eat sweets, but you limit how often it happens.
What’s the right portion size for me?
One of the main challenges when it comes to assessing what an ideal portion size would be, is that the nutritional content of food varies widely, and so a sensible portion size for one product can be very different for another.
For example, 100g of carrots contains 36 kcal, while 100g of peanuts contains in excess of 600 kcal. This means that people need to have in-depth knowledge of food in order to determine how much one should be eating of a given product, for example out of a larger package. Although the recommended portion size might be listed on the package, there are probably many who don’t read it, and few who actually weigh up the recommended amount on a food scale.
In addition, many people aren’t really familiar with counting calories and don’t really know how much food is equal to their daily caloric needs. Many diets have weighing and logging food as important starting activities, as it helps make the person on a diet more aware of nutritional content and sensible portion sizes, and how much food for example 50 grams constitutes.
If you are unsure of your energy needs, you can find guidance on the Kostholdsplanleggeren website, which is a diet tool from the Norwegian Directorate of Health and the Norwegian Food Safety Authority.
Difficult to assess meals
It can be even trickier to assess the nutritional content of prepared or combined food products such as dinners, compared to pure products or raw materials, especially if you do not cook the food yourself. Research from the US has shown that restaurant guests underestimated fat and calorie content in restaurant menus by up to half of the actual content.
Focusing on “healthy” products can also have a counterproductive effect in that people might indulge in bigger portions of foods that are perceived as “healthy”, such as nuts or honey.
Our brains are to blame as well for our inability to assess what constitutes a suitable portion, because it has difficulty assessing volume based on geometric shape. For example, for beverages we tend to pour less into tall, slender glasses than in short, wide glasses with the same volume, because the quantity looks smaller in the short, wide glasses than in the tall, slender ones.
Consider the portion size before you eat
It’s easy to throw your good intentions to the wind when you are sitting comfortably on your sofa watching TV while you eat. You shift your attention from eating to what is happening on the screen. That makes it even harder to check yourself and register how much you eat as well as the portion size. A practical tip is not to bring the whole bag of chips or sweets as you get comfortable in front of the TV, but rather to pour the desired amount into a bowl before sitting down. That would give you the opportunity to consider what a sensible portion would be in advance, before your attention is shifted.
Similarly, it can be wise to serve dinner on plates instead of placing cooking dishes on the table. That way, you do the portion assessment before everyone sits down and the dinner-table conversation gets going. If the cooking dishes are on the table, it’s easy to be tempted to several helpings, which makes it harder to control your food intake.
How to limit dinner calories?
If you wish to limit your calorie intake for dinner, starting the meal with a salad or vegetables – which is common practice in many other countries – might be a good strategy, as these help fill you up. Another strategy is to fill half of the plate with salad and vegetables, as those are usually low in calories – as long as you manage to limit the use of salad dressings – and then help yourself to rice/pasta/potatoes and meat/fish afterwards.
In the past couple of decades, the size of dinner plates has increased considerably. Previously, dinner plates with a 25 centimetre diameter were common, whereas today the typical diameter is from 27 cm and up. With larger plates it’s easy to help yourself to larger portions – and finish the plate. So a clever strategy if you wish to limit your food intake could be to go down one plate size or be conscious about the plate size when you are shopping for new tableware.
To avoid temptations, calorie-rich foods should also not be standing in your line of sight on the kitchen counter or at the office. If the goods are in the cupboard, you will not face that constant reminder that a treat is only an arm’s length away. If any food is to be left out, it should ideally be foods that you should eat more of, such as fruit or cut-up vegetables.
Shared bowls make us eat more
Research shows that large portions of food and non-alcoholic beverages make people eat and drink more, increasing their calorie intake. We eat more potato chips or sweets when served from a large bowl or bag, even when sharing with others.
Research has also shown that self-control is an important element when eating, but how our self-control affects our intake depends on the context. If we for example have a big bowl of potato chips in front of us which we share with others, it is still easy to eat too much, even if others are watching how much you eat. This is because the portion was so large to begin with that it becomes socially acceptable to help yourself to bigger or more frequent helpings because there’s still enough left for everyone else after you’ve had your share. This means that you are likely to eat less dessert if it is presented in the form of a portion rather than if you’re helping yourself from a large bowl, and you’ll help yourself to more sweets from a big bowl than from a small one.