You know one phrase that has always bothered me? “Portion control.” Blech. There’s just something so judgmental and white-knuckled about it.
To me, it speaks of food meted out with equal parts precision and disapproval. It smacks of appetites denied, hands reaching for seconds and being slapped away. It sounds “hangry.”
Still, for as much as the phrase portion control might rub me the wrong way, I find the prospect of totally out-of-control portions to be similarly disconcerting.
Here in the United States, the latter problem seems to be the more pressing public-health threat. But, in fact, I think they are inherently intertwined.
A 2015 study reported in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that 92 percent of restaurant meals served in this country significantly “exceeded typical energy requirements for a single eating occasion.” Look, I know it’s probably no newsflash that a lot of the restaurant meals eaten in this country are calorically overdense. But 92 percent? That’s a lot.
And that eating overload isn’t just happening at restaurants. It’s occurring in many homes, where prepared, packaged, and takeout foods now dominate kitchen tables — if anybody even eats at tables anymore.
It also holds sway in many workplaces, where all-day grazing, snacking, and sweet-beverage-guzzling are now the norm. Of course, it’s encouraged just about everywhere in between: Starbucks recently introduced a new, 31-ounce Trenta serving option; and cookies the size of your face are routinely offered for “grab-and-go” at checkout counters.
As a fleet of respected researchers and authors, including Michael Moss, Michael Pollan, Gary Taubes, and Brian Wansink, have suggested, these over-eating trends have been designed into our food culture by industrial interests that have a lot to gain by getting us to eat — and buy — ever more.
They’ve done that by exploiting our natural eating preferences and manipulating them toward increasingly salty, sweet, and engineered-to-be-irresistible flavors and textures.
They’ve done it by providing us with huge serving sizes at seemingly bargain-basement prices (thanks mostly to industrial-agricultural subsidies financed by taxpayers).
And they’ve done it by lobbying intensively to make sure their business models (which include aggressive marketing to children and teens) aren’t effectively challenged.
Both the reengineering of our palates and the expansion of standard portions have grown more extreme over the past few decades, indelibly altering what several generations have come to think of as “normal” food products, serving sizes, and eating patterns.
The result, not surprisingly, is that we are now eating an astonishing quantity of food. Well, some food.
Just as the rampant overeating of heavily processed foods poses a serious threat to our health, it seems likely that the rampant undereating of whole foods (like the brightly colored vegetables that have been all but crowded out of our daily diets) may soon be understood as an equally grave threat.
Why? Because a lot of those healthy foods quell inflammation, issue healing instructions, and keep our genes functioning properly. Without them, even though our plates may be piled high, our bodies remain undernourished. Even as a great many of us surpass our daily calorie quotas, a bunch of our cellular functions, genetic circuitry, and metabolic pathways are scrounging for raw materials.
Data from the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee suggests that a significant percentage of U.S. adults aren’t getting the National Academy of Medicine’s (NAM) estimated average requirements of vitamins A, D, E, and C, as well as folate, calcium, magnesium, and fiber.
Relative to our heavy intake of omega-6 fatty acids (prevalent in most commercial vegetable oils, processed foods, fast foods, and meats), our ratio of omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish, grassfed meats, nuts, seeds, and avocados) is, according to guidance from the NAM, woefully low.
In the realm of nutrition — as in all realms — both “not enough” and “too much” of anything can spell trouble. Unfortunately, we live in a food world that can make it hard to find the middle ground between these extremes.
So how do we make sense of our own appetites? How do we make peace with what often feels like an uncontrollable desire to eat more than our bodies know how to handle? And at the same time, how do we get more in touch with our bodies’ healthy cravings — the ones telling us we actually need more of some things, not less?
I think it comes down to a reprioritizing of quality over quantity, and a refining of the ability to differentiate between the two.
That, in turn, calls for both exposure and experimentation. So here are a few great places to start:
1. If you’re ready to go all in, try a Whole30. Basically, this involves 30 days of eating high-quality whole foods while simultaneously eliminating grains, dairy, added sugars, caffeine, alcohol, soy, and corn (more at www.whole30.com). Too intense? Consider embarking on a more inclusive whole-food eating strategy (like Harvard nutritionist David Ludwig’s Always Hungry? program) that encourages you to eat a plethora of nutrition-dense foods while also helping you master some essential healthy-eating skills in the process.
2. Add before you remove. If you’re not interested in a full-scale eating intervention, try a more nuanced approach. Rather than restricting the foods you are currently eating, try adding moderate to generous helpings of healthy whole foods (especially nonstarchy vegetables and healthy fats) to the mix. Add a big green salad or an extra serving of colorful veggies with olive oil and lemon to as many meals as you can. Have an avocado or a can of sardines for a snack. As your nutrition and fiber intake increase, your body will naturally recalibrate, steadying your energy and appetite, reducing your cravings, and making it easier to manage subsequent nutritional adjustments.
3. Reverse ratios. Often, when we are presented with problematically big portions, the substrate is a cheap, grain-based filler — pasta, rice, bread, pastry, cereal, or pizza crust. More nutritious and flavorful ingredients (like fresh produce) are presented as toppings, flavorings, or mere condiments. Try reversing these proportions, and notice how it influences your eating experiences. If you have a robust serving of vegetables with meat or plant-sourced protein as a base, could you enjoy a smaller serving of pasta on the side? For breakfast, could you dig into a generous bowl of berries, nuts, and seeds with just a handful of cereal sprinkled over the top? With enough yummy fillings, could you have your sandwich open-faced, or tucked into a big romaine leaf rather than a grain-based wrap? Try a few swaps and see what happens.
4. Get comfortable with the cost-benefit tradeoffs. High-quality whole foods often, but not always, cost more than cheap commodity ingredients. But by helping you stay healthier and more satisfied, they deliver a better value over time. (For more on that, check out my last column, “Revolutionary Act No. 33: Care Where Food Comes From.”) Be willing to invest in healthy foods that taste great, even if it means enjoying them in smaller quantities.
Finally, if you do nothing else, just start noticing. Notice the nature of the foods in front of you. Notice how you feel when you eat them. And notice how, as you embrace foods that nourish your senses and your health, concerns with portion control begin to fall away, revealing new adventures in eating enjoyment.