By Paulette Lambert, RD, CDE
California Health & Longevity Institute
Take a quick survey among your friends and family, and you’ll no doubt find that more than a few are making an effort to improve their diet and lose some extra pounds, driven not only by a desire to feel better but also to reduce their risk of chronic disease. For most this means searching for a prescribed diet that can lead to successful weight loss. And they have a lot to choose from: there are innumerable plans out there, ranging from low-carbohydrate/high-protein, to raw food only, to those that promise followers unlimited servings of their favorite foods. But the truth is the majority of these plans will leave dieters disappointed, as most people fail to comply with a prescribed diet plan for more than three to four weeks. Diets just aren’t sustainable for the long haul.
The solution? Don’t diet. Instead try a different tactic: focus on eating healthier foods and healthier-sized portions to achieve your goal weight. Discussions of Eat this, not that often guide the approach to weight loss, when in fact How much of this should I eat? is the more important question. To successfully achieve weight-loss goals—and maintain them long-term—how much we eat is as critical as what we eat.
There’s no question that America has been “supersized.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us that serving sizes now are four times larger than in 1950. The obesity level in the United States is currently at 68.7 percent, with the average adult 26 pounds heavier than in the 1950s. And Americans are recognizing the problem, too: 55 percent of us are trying to diet (up about 10 percent over the past 10 years).
But just because we are recognizing a problem doesn’t mean that individuals or the food service industry are taking the necessary steps to effect real change. We are dining out about 50 percent of the time, and restaurants are serving much larger portions than ever before. Recent studies at the University of North Carolina concluded that the daily calorie intake of a US citizen has increased 32 percent—more than enough to account for the obesity epidemic we now face. Other studies are even more concerning, showing a shift to eating larger quantities at home as well.
The impact of this trend toward larger serving sizes, combined with the relatively affordable price tag on those huge portions, means it’s harder for most of us to self-regulate. Over the past decade, Rutgers University studies have shown that when we are served more, we eat more. Plates, bowls, and cups have all increased in size. A standard dinner plate prior to 1970 was nine inches; now it is 10 to 12 inches, which means it can hold 25 percent more food, leading to more calories and greater obesity. The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior recently found that study participants served themselves 77 percent more pasta when given a larger bowl.
The first step in shifting this trend in a healthier direction is educating consumers about the unhealthy norm of current portion sizes—and about what constitutes a healthy serving. For instance, the average pasta serving in the United States is 3 cups, equivalent to six pieces of bread; a large burrito with rice, beans, and chicken is equivalent to six to eight servings of bread. Yikes! It’s clear that our current normal serving sizes are anything but healthy.
So, how can individuals move toward healthier choices and work to control portion size? Taking a mindful approach to portions comes first. Here are some helpful tips to “reset” portions sizes:
Use a scale and a measuring cup a few times a week when dining at home to help you develop more-accurate visual references. If you’re serious about losing weight, spend the few minutes to get it right!
Use smaller plates, 1-cup bowls, and 8-ounce glasses for meals. You’ll be amazed at how much less you consume.
Eat three meals and one or two snacks to avoid getting overly hungry. Adults need to eat every five hours to maintain an adequate glucose level; a glucose level that is too low for an extended time can lead to much higher food consumption before satiation is reached.
Revise your plate. The new My Plate guidelines typically cut calories by one-third and yet leave you satisfied. Decrease protein to one-quarter of the plate, limit grains to 1 cup, and fill the other half of the plate with vegetables and fruit.