The Obstacle Meter – 19: Portion Sizes

19: Portion Sizes

I have trouble controlling how much I eat in one sitting.

If you struggle with portion sizes, there are a few things you can do

1) change your eating environment.

2) learn tricks to help self-monitor.

3) limit your exposure to highly palatable food (high sugar, fat, and/or salt).


Use Smaller Plates, Cups, and Bowls: in many cases it is okay to use kid sized plates and cups.  Be careful here though as research shows that small plates do not prevent you from overeating when highly palatable food is available (i.e., food reward is more powerful than small plates).  This strategy should be an add on for meal planning and not a replacement for it.

Put Away Distractions While You are Eating: (phones, books, newspapers) and turn the television off.

Serve Dinner at the Counter and Eat at the Table: this will prevent you from grazing at the dinner table and force you to get up and go get seconds if you so desire.

Put Leftovers away Right after Dinner: this will prevent you from saying, maybe I will eat just a little more.

Take out a Portion and put the Container Away: try not to eat directly from the container.  It is difficult to tell how much you have actually eaten when eating directly out of the container or bag.

Buy Single Serve Snack Packs or Portion out Your Own: I know that all this extra plastic can seem a little inconsiderate of the environment but to circumvent that you can wash your plastic baggies or use reusable plastic or glass containers.  Alternatively, another strategy is to buy your one snack for the week and when that snack is gone, it is gone, you have no more snacks to eat for the rest of the week.

Wear Tighter Clothing during Meals: this one might be a little out there for some of you but hey, whatever works.

Choose Foods that Take Effort to Eat: such as unshelled nuts such as pistachios, tough beef jerky, broth-based soups, shelled fish or oysters, pomegranates.


Focus on the Food: by paying attention to your food, your senses are able to take full advantage of all the foods tastes and textures.  Let me ask you a question.  Have you ever had this happen to you before: you were so engrossed in another activity (i.e. looking at your phone) that food disappeared off your plate without you even knowing about it.  You ate it but it feels like someone stole it.  If you cannot remember what you ate, you may end up being hungry sooner rather than later.

I have a real-life example of this for you.  My grandfather on my mom’s side had a brain aneurysm (and a resultant stroke) that left him with no short-term memory.  My grandmother mentioned to our family a number of times that my grandfather would eat breakfast, forget about it, and then wonder when they were going to have breakfast.  Since he could not remember eating breakfast, he would want to eat breakfast again.  We cannot be sure whether he was actually hungry or if he wanted to eat breakfast out of routine, but I think it is safe to say that you should not take that chance and instead focus on what you are doing.

Eat Slowly: it is often said that your stomach takes 20 minutes to tell your brain that it is full; I do not buy this advice for a second.  The hot dog eating champion, Joey Chestnut, can ingest close to 70 hot dogs and the buns in 10 minutes, I am pretty sure that he knows he is full well before the clock strikes 20 minutes.  I could go on and on with examples of why I feel this advice is bogus but in the interest of time I will say this instead.  Instead of saying eating slowly, I would advise you to take a few seconds in-between bites to focus on the food to help you concentrate on enjoying it.  When you are restricting calories, there is no need to rush through a meal. 

Check out the Serving Sizes on Labels: how many chips, cookies or crackers is considered a serving size and how many calories are in a serving?  So many foods are packaged in sizes that we probably should not eat in one sitting but if it is put in front of us, it is human nature to eat it all.  We must try to be conscious of serving sizes and attempt to eat just one or two servings per occasion and not the whole bag.

Eat Fruits and Vegetables First: fruits and vegetables contain very few calories.  I challenge you to try to get enough calories in a day by eating only fruits and vegetables.  The point here is that if you eat fruits and vegetables before eating your entree or higher calorie items, you will eat fewer total calories per eating occasion.

Start with Water and Drink Throughout the Meal: fruits and vegetables fill you up for two primary reasons, they contain a lot of fiber, and they contain a lot of water.  Drinking water before and during the meal will help distend and fill up your stomach.  Your stomach can only hold so much volume at one time.  If it is full of water, you will be able to eat less food.

Try not to Skip Meals: skipping meals can lead to overeating at the next meal.  With that being said, not all meal skipping is created the same.  If you are purposefully skipping meals in a controlled fashion (i.e., time restricted feeding or intermittent fasting) and know what you are going to eat at your next meal, then skipping meals might not be the worst thing.  But this also takes a great deal of self-control, especially if your next meal contains highly palatable food (high sugar, fat or salt content).

Start a Food Journal, Record Your Portion Sizes: humans are very bad at estimating how much we eat.  There have been several studies showing that people who are overweight tend to underestimate how much they eat by a whopping 50%!  Food journaling and recording your portion sizes will help you control your portion sizes by forcing you to confront how much you may actually be eating.

Make Half Your Plate Fruits and Vegetables: this is another commonly recommended strategy and a cornerstone of the United States Department of Agricultures (USDA) MyPlate strategy for eating.  I would like to offer an alternative solution.  Choose foods and recipes with that include the vegetables in the entree.  This helps you from having to dirty extra dishes by making sides and also lowers the calorie density of the food you are eating.


Your brains reward system is evolutionarily designed to seek out things that offer survival and/or reproductive advantages.  In terms of food this means you are evolutionarily designed to seek out highly palatable foods that contain high amounts of sugar, fat and/or salt.  If you feel bad about feeling like you have no willpower when you are around certain foods, try not to.  Your body is doing exactly what it was designed to do.

Changing your environment to limit your exposure to highly palatable foods is probably the most prudent advice we could give you.  If the food is not there, you cannot eat it.  However, if you feel like you can be around this food without overdoing it, then we would suggest you try the self-monitoring techniques we offered above.

There is no right or wrong way to do any of this but there is a right and wrong way for you to do it and only you can figure that out through trial and error and finding out what works best for you.