My friends and I used to “full dial” each other in college.
Ya know, instead of drunk dialing.
Whenever, one us ate too much we’d call up the other and tell them about how full we are.
“Duuuuuuuuuuude slurred speech (incomprehensible)
“Eh? What time is it right now? Why are you calling me so late? grumble grumble”
“Duuuuuuuude. I’m sooOOoOoOOo full right now. Like soo full. Dude dude dude… Dude, I love you.”
We were not good at portion control.
Portion control is an important skill. Most people, even if they don’t take childish glee in telling their friends how full they are, aren't good at it.
It’s not really their fault though.
The current standard of living, plus the evolution of processed foods has made portion control increasingly difficult.
Hyperpalatable foods can be engineered to trick our hunger cues into thinking we’re hungrier than we are. We become out of tune with how much we eat, and how much we ought to be eating.
Plus, food tends to attach itself to lots of our emotions and issues.
Plus, society places moral qualities on certain foods.
Plus, many of us have a scarcity mindset especially with food. Food coma was worse once we only had limited access to the cafeteria, because anytime somebody let you in on a guest pass you felt like you had to make it count be eating as much as possible plus one more slice of pizza.
Plus, our culture perpetuates complicated unhealthy relationships with food and bodies.
Plus, we’re overworked, overstressed, and underslept.
Plus plus plus...
Point being, we have a horribly messy relationship with hunger and portion control for oodles of reasons.
While it might not be anybody’s fault for how messy your relationship and view of food is, it’s ultimately your responsibility if you want to change it.
I can’t see cultural and societal norms around food changing anytime soon i.e., your relationship with food isn’t going to change on its own. So if you want something done, do it yourself.
But given everything I just mentioned that influences how you eat, how do you start?
Well, the cool thing about portion control is that in any given social setting, portioning is the single thing you can always control.
You may not be able to choose which restaurant you go to, how much your grandma pushes food on you, or whether the cook respects your request for light dressing. But how much you eat is always within your locus of control.
It may not be easy, but portion control is a skill worth building to develop healthier, more enjoyable, and stable relationship with food and health.
In fact, my online 1:1 coaching clients always have portion control in their back pocket as a Plan B.
Because, even if they can’t work on other nutrition skills like eating veggies or cooking, they can always rely on portion control being within their power.
This means they’re never “off the wagon” when it comes to nutrition. They never let their circumstances dictate the effort they put into their nutrition. They’re always building up their healthy habits and skills in some capacity.
Consistency is key to success. So this detail is important
As with any skill, portion control takes practice. Here are a few strategies to hone your portion control skills and be more in tune with your body.
Don’t expect to be amazing at any of the following things right away. Be patient.
Focus on improvement, not perfection.
Alright, here we go.
Hunger cues. Listen to them
Like I said earlier, our hunger cues are all out of wack. It’ll take lots of time and practice to get yours back in wack.
Hunger cues are your body’s way of telling you what you do and don’t need nutritionally.
They’re a survival mechanism. But survival has changed. No need to chase down a mammoth for days anymore. Simply pick up your free range, organic, GMO-free mammoth from your local grocery store. If you have money, food is ridiculously easy to obtain.
Our survival mechanisms haven’t kept pace with the rapid changes of industrialization. Our survival mechanisms our outdated because the world has changed faster than our biology can evolve.
For example, having a slow metabolism and being able to hold onto fat stores used to be a genetic advantage. When food is scarce, the last thing you want is to quickly burn up your hard earned calories. In the modern world though, a slow metabolism makes it easier to put on unhealthy amounts of weight.
The onus is on you then. To get back in tune with your body’s feedback, you have to start listening.
“But how? You just spent like 5 paragraphs talking about how the modern world has screwed up everything that evolution worked so hard for.”
To start with, try avoiding the “discomfort zone” of fullness. Stay away from food coma or “full-dial” territory. This provides a good starting point to listening to hunger cues.
Once you just start feeling physically uncomfortable, call that 100% fullness. Anything after that is 100%+.
To get started working on hunger cues, commit to staying out of physical discomfort for one week.
Practice this until it starts to feel more intuitive. Then start trying to shoot for 80% fullness each meal.
80% can be described as feeling satisfied, no longer hungry, but not even close to being bloated or lethargic. 80% fullness after a meal a really good general guideline. So in terms of hunger cues, learning to hit 80% fullness after most meals is the endgame.This is what you want to work towards.
But again, it takes time to learn to listen to your hunger cues.
So start with the most clearly defined cue “Am I physically uncomfortable because of how much I ate?”.
Then as you get better with practice. You’ll be more able to recognize how to stop eating at 80% fullness.
Build awareness about caloric density and nutrient density.
If a food is calorically dense, it has a large amount of calories compared to satiety (how filling it is).
Think about cake. It’s basically just pure calories from sugar and fats with zero fullness. Cake isn’t satiating because it’s very calorie dense and not nutrient dense at all.
Nutrient dense foods are, by nature, more filling because they contain more nutrients your body must work hard to digest. Broccoli is filling because it has lots of fiber. Chicken is filling because it’s packed with protein.
With processed foods, listening to hunger cues is particularly tricky because the caloric richness of these foods doesn’t match the amount of fullness they provide. For example, you can put loads of sugar into something without affecting how filling it is at all. Yet, by adding loads of sugar, you’ve added loads of calories. A slice of cake with 500g of sugar will be as filling as a slice with 10g.
Because of this, you can’t always rely on feeling full to avoid overeating calories. Not with processed foods at least.
Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still pay attention to your hunger cues -- just that hunger cues alone won’t prevent you from eating too many calories if you’re eating chocolate or french fries.
With most whole foods, hunger cues will usually nudge you towards eating less calories than you expend AKA a caloric deficit AKA weight loss.
So you have be aware of which foods are nutrient dense and which are calorie dense.
Here’s a list of foods that are calorically dense and nutrient dense and in between. This obviously isn’t a comprehensive list because that would be literally impossible, but I tried to cover the basics.
Use this list to develop an intuition about caloric and nutrient density.
If it’s a fruit, veggie, fish, or non-fatty meat it’s usually going to be nutrient dense and calorie light. If it’s what most would call junk food: anything oily or deep fried, sweets, pastries, cakes, chips, etc, it’s going to be calorically dense and nutrient light.
Then there are the foods in between -- things that are either nutrient and calorie dense or nutrient and calorie light e.g., grains, avocados, nuts.
With unprocessed nutrient dense foods, your hunger cues will serve you just fine. It’s going to be really difficult to overeat on calories with something like broccoli and chicken, where you’re going to fill up before you eat that many calories.
With calorie dense foods though it’s a different story, so just be mindful of how many of these kinds of foods you’re eating.
Eat slowly and mindfully. Chew the hell out of your food.
The faster you eat, the harder it is to listen to hunger cues. This increases the likelihood of overeating.
Nothing revolutionary here in terms of advice. However, you may be surprised at how fast you eat.
Try setting a timer.
It feels shockingly unnatural to make a meal last longer than 10 minutes. Especially if you’re eating by yourself.
I was blown away when I tried this. By the time I had 3 bites left I still had 7 minutes left on the clock. Woops.
If you’re eating with people, your eating pace will subconsciously match that of whoever you’re eating with. So if you’re trying to lose weight and your partner is trying to gain weight (or vice versa), this gets tricky.
Also, if you’re at a dinner where you don’t really know anyone and feel awkward, you’ll probably munch a bit faster than normal.
You can combat this simply by being ultra mindful of it:
- Remind yourself to slow down
- Taking longer breaths
- Putting down your fork in between bites
- Talking more
- Chewing each bit for X amount of chews
- Taking a drink of water in between bites.
This will be especially helpful around friends or relatives who are “feeders”. Feeders are people with good intentions who care about you, yet push food on you constantly, usually of the indulgent kind. They’ll see you’ve finished your plate and immediately pile more on. You have no say in the matter.
Making your meal stretch out longer by eating slowly means you avoid the awkwardness and pressure of having to refuse an unflinchingly persistent feeder.
It may feel like you’re swimming upstream at gatherings where everyone is eating a lot, and quickly. But, it’s you who ultimately control how fast you eat. Remember that.
Fill up on veggies first.
I stole this from one of my online 1:1 clients, we’ll call him Jason. Whenever Jason goes to pot lucks or parties he fills his plate up with veggies and calorie dense things first. Afterwards he’ll usually be too full to eat lots of the calorie dense stuff. This means he doesn’t have to use as much willpower to stay on top of his nutrition.
Recruit an accountability buddy for social gatherings
If you’re at a social gathering it really helps to recruit a friend as an accountability buddy who is also trying to be healthy.
Especially if you don’t know anyone, introverts like myself will naturally gravitate to manning a post somewhere near the food. If you’re snacking you feel less awkward because you’re doing something. You’re not just twiddling your thumbs, feeling out of place, and checking your phone every 5 seconds when you know damn well you don’t have any new messages.
Plus, lots of us eat when we’re anxious. So parties are a double whammy in terms of snacking potential.
Recruiting a friend to help keep you accountable can solve this because:
- You can stick together to avoid the social awkwardness that triggers wanting to snack.
- Just by agreeing beforehand to not snack so much, seeing your accountability buddy will help keep you on track and remind you of your health goals.
Turn off the technology while you eat.
Watching TV or dicking around on your phone is going to make you eat faster and less mindfully.
By nature these things are distracting. They override your hunger cues and any other food awareness. If you’re always watching TV while you snack after work, you won’t realize how much you’re eating and it’ll be harder to pinpoint why you’re snacking.
Portion control requires mindfulness, self awareness, and being present. TV, social media, and other stimulus all stand in the way of building these qualities as they pertain to eating.
If you’re mindlessly scrolling, you’re going to be mindlessly eating.
Especially if you’re eating something indulgent, turn off your computer and put your phone away to be present and really savor what you’re eating. You’ll find the experience more satisfying and most likely, not feel as tempted to eat rich, calorie dense things for a while.
If you’re eating, make sure you’re only eating. No multitasking.
Life is crazy and unpredictable. This makes creating sustainable, long term changes to your health difficult. Because more often than not, things you can’t control get in the way.
However, this isn’t a reason to give up or put your goals on hold.
You can always make progress if you stay focused and find creative ways to practice healthy skills in various situations. Focus on what you can control, don’t trip about what can’t.
In this post, the thing you can always control is how much you eat. That’s something that’s always in your locus of control.
I encourage you to not just implement the tips in the post, but also be resourceful in situations where being healthy isn’t easy.
Look for opportunities to practice eating healthy in different situations. To name a few, look for chances to practice:
- Self awareness
- Dietary objectivity
- Eating more vegetables
- Eating more protein
- Drinking more water
- Intentional food choices
- Planning ahead
- Implementing back up plans
- Listening to hunger cues