Yes, But What About Portion Control?
There's a popular diet out there amongst women (maybe men, too, but I'm familiar with it from lady friends) that comes with these brightly colored, portion control assisting plastic containers. The idea is that you order the cookbook/diet plan, and these little magic containers that help you to portion your food are shipped to your doorstep, ready to assist you as you fill 'em up with your new meal plan.
While I don't agree with dieting or what feels like a backassward approach to food (and the relationship with meal time that it promotes surreptitiously), I do LOVE the brilliance behind the solution that's provided here. Because they've actually hit the nail on the head: there is a SERIOUS need for this; like all good businesses/inventions do (necessity is the mother of invention), this model addresses a very specific, common, and frustrating problem:
"I don't know how much to eat/I don't know when to stop."
Portion control is straight up HARD for a very good reason: trying to control your food amount/quality is actually more aligned with your willpower than your logic, which means it's tied deeply to emotion (willpower) and the right side of your brain.
Portion control, then, is trying to solve an emotional problem with left brain logic and math and rigidness.
This makes about as much sense to me as the idea that, after putting your dog to sleep, you grab a rain gauge to collect your tears in an attempt to measure, quantify, and soothe your sadness.
I'll explain further using what I have found to be much better tools for quantifying and evaluating whether you're experiencing hunger or emotional eating; tools which will solve the aforementioned problem of "I don't know how much to eat/I don't know when to stop."
The simplest solution is to turn to pre-portioned meals like Lean Cuisines or to begin measuring everything you eat with scales. This does work. It's proven. However, it is not my preferred method.*
I'm willing to bet that you actually could figure out how much you need to eat at any given time by tuning into your body, breathing while you eat, and taking it nice and slow.
To be clear, I'm NOT talking down to you. I have a DEEP, personal, and painful history with portion control myself. I went through feast or famine mode for years. I would either restrict myself to the point of starvation or allow myself to have ALL THE FOOD. I was never hungry. I was never full. I was either STARVING or I was PAINFULLY STUFFED.
Intuitive eating/mindful eating has become far more reliable to me than tiny cups that portion out my food for me ever could. I crave the ability and self knowledge to be able to trust my own body to tell me how much I need to eat. Not a cup. Not a scale. Not math and calorie counting and micros and macros.
“If you focus on results, you will never change. If you focus on change, you will get results.” ― Jack Dixon
In American culture (and the Deep South, where I live), we are constantly surrounded by food. And food is veeeeeeery addictive. Sugar, fats, and salt become anti-septic: they make us feel good... but that "feel good" is temporary. Like a drug addict chasing her next high, we seek more "feel good" from our food. More ice cream. More cake. More wine. More cheese. Etc.
So those better tools I mentioned? Rather than the elusive and wibbly wobbly amorphous "portion control" method, I teach and rely on three tenets for assuaging hunger, emotional eating, and the common issue of "I don't know how much to eat/I don't know when to stop.":
- The 90/10 rule
- Crowding out
These three tenets work together to generate a practical and balanced approach to mealtime. Eating is creative and emotional—food soothes, comforts, lifts, celebrates, and connects us to others.
Let's face it: As grown-ups, whether we like it or not, we have to be our own caretaker, and it is up to us to parent ourselves for our highest good (like when it's time to go to bed because you have an early work meeting the next day or stopping yourself from having a second, third, or fourth piece of cake/glass of wine). Having some mental frameworks in place to channel the many thoughts and brainwaves floating around in that noggin of yours will move you from being given a fish (portion control) to learning how to fish ("I do know how much to eat/I do know when to stop").
Volumetrics is based on the idea that people LOVE to eat, or: "The more (we eat), the merrier!"
Volumetrics means: eat whatever the heck you want, but be aware. Be aware of what you're eating. Be present. Be aware of the calorie load.
We feel full because of the volume of food we eat, so eating less empty calories will help us to feel full, get more nutrients, and not crave more and more and MORE bites.
To be clear, I’m not saying to count calories—
Counting calories is for the birds.
However, volumetrics invites us to be aware of the types of foods we are eating and WHY.
In short: If you want a Snickers bar—like, you're CRAVING a Snickers bar—please, for the love of all that is schmoly, have a Snickers bar.
Consider the calorie load.
A single bar has 250 calories... which means... basically nothing.
You know what else has 250 calories?
Or 2.5 tablespoons of almond butter.
Put two tablespoons of almond butter on a banana, and you have the same amount of calories as a Snickers bar. (This is why counting calories is, in my opinion, not worth your brain power.)
So, if you're craving a Snickers, having 36 almonds or two tablespoons of almond butter on a banana probably isn't going to curb the craving, and you may eat way more trying to satisfy the craving than if you'd just eaten the damn Snickers bar.
Now, if you simply have a case of the munchies and don't have a particular or intense craving, it may be more beneficial to go for a snack that you know will provide nutrients along with a satisfying crunch. (Especially since an urge for a crunchy, chewy snack when we aren't hungry typically indicates that we’re more bored than we are in need of sustenance.)
More on all this in a bit, when we tie these three tenets together. For now, let's move into:
The 90/10 Rule (Or 80/20)
Speaking of special treats, it is important, nay, it is necessary, I say, to indulge. Never diet. Never deprive yourself. Live the fullest, most joyous, well balanced life that you can, choosing to focus on what you can give yourself rather than what you can’t. Eat an abundance of healthy, wonderful foods. My goal is to help shift your habits so that most of the time you're making super duper healthy wonderful food choices, but... dude, not ALL of the time. Life is short. Please enjoy! Eat the things you can. The things you enjoy. 90%/80% of the time we can focus on making choices that will nourish our bodies, but 10%/20% of the time we can let our hair down and give in to those special treats.
Otherwise? We feel deprived.
Otherwise we feel labeled as no fun.
And when we're eating a 90/10 or 80/20 life, that Snickers ain't gonna do a whole lotta damage.
The Theory of Crowding Out
Speaking of feeling deprived, not once will I ever tell you not to eat something. If you love yourself some Oreos, I will not tell you that you must not eat them. If you love Pepsi or coffee, I will never tell you to stop drinking them. But I will suggest that you eat and drink less of them, and I will probably do the biggest happy dance if YOU choose to move away from these food items on your own.
The best way to do this is for me to encourage you to crowd them out.
What is crowding out, pray tell? When you add in more whole foods, you will naturally crowd out the foods you want less of and move you toward hashtag: clean eating.
A brief aside: What is Clean Eating?
It's pretty unavoidable these days, and I'm sure you've seen the term "clean eating" thrown around on social media: post workout hashtags on Twitter or Facebook, Instagram food pics, and Pinterest boards.
So, what is clean eating?
One of my favorite resources is Urban Dictionary, because it not only defines things but also puts them in the context of our current culture. Urban Dictionary defines clean eating as: “to consume as little junk food as possible, concentrating on whole grains, complex carbohydrates, starches, fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and healthy fats.”
We’ve heard it from a young age: “you are what you eat.” Our bodies are organic machines. These machines operate with fuel. What we eat is what provides that fuel, and in turn, that fuel is largely indicative of the current state of our bodies. I’m sure we’d all rather be driving around well maintained machines than clunky, broken down pick-ups.
Clean eating is a way of eating that means we’re making food choices based solely on our left brains (using logic, analysis, facts, and computation) and not on our right brains (creativity, imagination, holistic thinking, intuition, and feelings).
It’s a delicate balance then, a dance, if you will, between the left brain and right brain. Often, these dueling parts of ourselves are our worst enemies. When deciding what we’re going to eat, both our left and right brains get a chance to make their case, and we get to decide who we’re going to listen to.
Now's a good time to start taking note of what these voices are saying to you.
Begin to notice patterns and habits, increase your awareness, and listen to both sides of your brain. This is key to unlocking intuitive eating.
Before we put these tenets together and tie this puppy up like a bow—quick question for you.
Have you noticed that everyone argues about what everyone else should eat?
That’s just plain silly. Everyone is different. We are all unique. One person's vegan diet that saved their life may be another's kryptonite. One man's raw meat diet was the only thing that kept him alive, but does that mean everyone should eat raw meat? NO!
There is no one right way to eat. There are, however, some basics that are true across the board: Everyone can benefit from eating less processed and refined foods, less sugar, less meat, less milk, and more fruit, vegetables, and whole foods.
Alright, let's put it all together now:
When we are eating "clean" we typically require a much larger quantity of food than we’re used to eating—ever noticed how vegetables and fruits go right through you? (Volumetrics)
We’ve talked about dieting and why it doesn’t work. The second we feel restricted we rebel, and most diets result in an equal and opposite binge. We humans are quite contrary, fickle creatures. (90/10 or 80/20)
We’ve also talked about hunger being the body's way of telling us we require more nutrients. This is why we can eat an empty calorie meal that fills us momentarily but leaves us wanting more shortly thereafter. We are still hungry for vital nutrients, though we’ve indulged in a large number of calories that provided no nutrition. On the other hand, we have clean eating, aka eating more nutrient rich calories. These nutrient dense foods provide fuel that burns efficiently, and we need to keep a sufficient quantity of this quality food coming in. (Crowding Out)
I want to stress one more point that is perhaps most important for me to drive home: I don’t encourage counting calories (remember, it's for the birds), but it is very important to ensure that we are getting enough caloric intake (aka quality fuel) and not starving ourselves. Too often, clean eating and wellness journeys become a jumping off point for eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and orthorexia nervosa. If you’ve ever had or think you may be beginning to develop an eating disorder, make sure you speak with a doctor or nutritionist before making ANY drastic changes to your diet.
Love the food you eat. Live the life you love. Ditch guilt and regret.
*Please note that I well understand there are those who must completely change and curb their food intake for medical reasons. This was written specifically to the chronic dieter, the woman who never feels she is enough, the one who could use slight shifts in her diet and lifestyle. This is generic in nature, for that reason. All three tenets can apply to anyone, anywhere, but please follow the advice of your doctors, therapists, and any health professionals with whom you are working.