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Help with helpings

Posted Nov 17 2011 12:00am
©Dreamstime.com
“There are no unhealthy foods. Just unhealthy portion sizes.”

I’m always astonished when I hear people say this. No food is bad for you, they insist. It’s just that people eat too much of it. (It's a popular view among processed food manufacturers, not surprisingly.)

There’s often a certain smugness underneath. “I eat anything I want; I just eat moderate portions.” (Subtext: Everyone should be as self-disciplined as me.) “Chips Ahoy can be part of a balanced diet. Read the label for the recommended serving size.” (Subtext: It’s your own fault if you eat the whole bag, you slob!!!!!!).

Okay, a certain amount of personal responsibility does enter the picture. You’re the only one who has control over how much you eat. But come on, don’t tell me the junk food manufacturer doesn’t want you to eat the whole bag. At this very moment, big food companies are feverishly working in their labs cooking up artificial flavors and emulsifiers and the like with the express purpose of making their products as addictive as possible.

But let’s forget the white-coated chemists for a moment and talk about portion sizes. Maybe that skinny friend of yours is right. If you could just stick to the recommended serving sizes like she does, your problems would be over.

We invest portion sizes with a lot of power. A lot of magic. When you go on a diet, the first thing you’re supposed to do is get yourself a kitchen scale and a set of measuring cups. The diet book, or chart, or app, will tell you how much of each food equals a serving. Diets are very specific about serving sizes. Even diet experts who reject diets, the ones who say you can eat anything you want, always add, “as long as you limit the serving size.”

So what does it mean to limit the serving size? Well, that’s where it gets murky. An appropriate portion may be what the USDA recommends for a hypothetical person of your gender and age group. Or it can be whatever the food manufacturer says it is. For instance, a standard single-serving container of yogurt used to be 8 ounces. Then, quietly, it changed to 6 ounces.

Was this because of some giant breakthrough in the field of nutrition? No, it was because a 6-oz. container of yogurt created a better profit margin for manufacturers. Yogurt joined the ranks of other shrinking packaged foods (orange juice, ice cream, cereal, tuna fish).

Some people really like single-serving foods. Especially those little 100-calorie snack packs. One serving means you can’t overindulge.

I imagine the white-coated food chemists painstakingly calculating how many Chips Ahoy Thin Crisps it takes to equal 100 calories. “Twenty-seven, twenty-eight... hmm. What if we make them 1.67 percent smaller?”

Do those chemists know how hungry you are? Or how physically active? Or what else you’ve eaten today, or yesterday? I bet those guys have never even met you.

Hundred-calorie packs seem to have dropped off in popularity, but many diet experts still suggest we transfer king-size packages of snacks into single-serving baggies as soon as we get home from the store. Don’t depend on willpower, they warn us.

But, see, the reason we need all of this excess packaging is that processed food is so nutritionally empty that it doesn’t matter if you eat 100 calories’ worth of Chips Ahoy cookies or 1,000 - your body wants more. When your body needs nutrients, it prompts you to keep eating. And eating. If there are no nutrients whatsoever in that bag, you’ll need superhuman willpower in order to stop. Or a special tiny package.

Here’s a little secret: serving sizes become a lot less important when you quit eating processed food and start eating real food.

At any given meal, a serving size of real food is the amount that leaves you satisfied and not craving more. If you’re back in the kitchen grazing an hour or two later, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with your willpower. It just means you didn’t eat enough .

I always tell my clients to ruin their appetite for dessert. It’s better to take a second helping of a healthy main dish than to succumb to cookies and ice cream later on.

Don’t get nervous if it takes some trial and error to find this sweet spot. Don’t beat yourself up if you miscalculate from time to time. If you just get out of its way, your body will figure out how much you need to eat. If you accidentally eat too little or too much at one meal, you’ll eat more or less at the next. It may seem incredible, but your body can sense the nutrient content of your diet. Even though it can’t read labels.

Totally new at this? Freaked out by uncertainty? That’s understandable. If you’ve spent years overriding your body’s suggestions about how much to eat, following the advice of one diet authority after another, you’ve probably lost all sense of what a typical serving size looks like. So go ahead and consult the label or a diet chart or a website - just to refresh your memory.

But use those guidelines as a starting point only. Your body is the authority!
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