The very words, “portion control,” will send shivers up the spine, at least they do for me. This is the standard advice of doctors and nutrition experts, and it is absolutely correct. Huh? What about those lemon cleanses and juice diet fads that cleanse toxins and burn fat? Yeah, they work because you are putting your body into a calorie deficit. If they don’t work, it’s not because your body is unresponsive, it’s because you are likely oblivious to how many calories you are consuming (you’re eating other things). Or you are defying the laws of physics. I’m not a doctor, so I can’t speak to diseases that won’t allow you to lose weight, but in my experience, thinking that my body defied the rules got me into a lot of trouble. Part of this is the negative psychology that occurs when you mindfully restrict your calorie intake. As I’ve said before, we are literally eating machines. It is what we are designed to do. This creates a conundrum. If you want to lose weight, you must accept the fundamental fact that you will not lose weight without running a calorie deficit. But restricting calorie intake is something that requires a degree of subtlety and knowledge to obtain a benefit.
I would say that rule number one with calorie restrictions is to shift your mindset from, “this is all I get today,” to “how much do I need right now, knowing that I am going to be eating all day long.” When I approach food from the former mindset, I (unwittingly) load up my plate like I am not going to eat for the rest of the day, setting myself up for a situation where I am going to have to rely on self-control later on. Bad idea. As a rule, you are always going to eat more at night if you are inclined to social interaction. “Hey, come have dinner and a few drinks,” then I’m like, “OK.” If I am operating under a large enough calorie deficit, I have room for this. I have found that it is far better, for me at least, to approach calorie restriction from the latter mindset.
I really try to think about eating. The first thing I will do when I am ready to prepare a meal is reach for a piece of fruit because I am inclined to munching in the kitchen, especially if I am hungry. It will generally contain fewer calories and give me the ability to sidestep the former mindset and the tendency to gorge myself because that is the default setting. Now that my hunger is addressed, I am able to start thinking in terms of flavor. What flavors do I want to experience? This is an important psychological part of satiety. Food should be a primary source of pleasure in your life. Again, we are designed that way. I then go about giving myself that flavor experience in the smallest portion size possible.
For illustrative purposes, I’ll use the example of an omelet. From the former mindset, I will make an omelet with four eggs, two sausage patties, cheese, and lots of butter (unwittingly, mind you). All the while I’m picking in the high-calorie ingredients (cheese, sausage, etc.), easily totaling over 1000 calories, half my allowance for the day. When the omelet is done, I scarf it down with little appreciation. Part of this is because my psychological state is leading me to rush. I feel nervous and guilty, rushing to get the deed done. I will only be satisfied for about an hour under those circumstances. In the latter state, I will be munching on fruit, and basically cut everything in half, serve it on a smaller plate, and eat much slower. There are a million psychological factors that can contribute to me settling in either mindset, but if I’m paying attention and reasonably unstressed, I can recognize where I’m at in time to change course. Sometimes, even if I do manage to make the decision to make a smaller portion, I head back for seconds, because it looks small, and I’m still hungry. This is where using vegetables to “inflate” the size of your food comes in handy. It is important to be aware of your mental state because it creates the food choice foundation for the rest of the day. It is important to be aware of your mindset at every meal, the day doesn’t end until you are sleeping. If you overeat, you are going to have to exercise self-control to resist the very natural urge to eat for the rest of the day. This quickly turns into a negative cycle.
I think the best indicator of whether you should be eating or not is your level of stress or nervousness. I like to channel those emotions through exercise, or other pleasurable activities, and then come back to food when I’m feeling calmer and more aware. For people without weight problems, this may seem ridiculous to the point of hilarity, but it is a real struggle. It is not hard for me to crush 5000 or more calories throughout the day without even thinking about it. I basically fail to appreciate how much food I’m eating if I don’t slow down and really focus on enjoying it. Part of that is in preparation. I can make all my reward systems (taste, smell, texture, knowing that my diet is on track etc.), go off by really nailing how something is cooked. If it’s cooked very well, I enjoy it much more, which hits the “you’re satisfied” button. If I don’t get that button pushed by quality, my mind quickly shifts, subconsciously, to quantity, and I’m ravenous for the rest of the day. Part of this likely lies in the element of time. You must allow your body to react to food for the hormonal responses to tell you that you are full. In our society, that is difficult because we don’t linger around food. We eat and quickly get back to “more important things.” Eating this way will leave me in the same psychological state as if I hadn’t eaten at all. Ravenous!
A cool trick for portion control (which I touched on briefly before) is to use calorie dense foods as flavoring elements for vegetables. This gives you all the flavor rewards without the excess calories, essentially “inflating” the size of your meal. My brussels sprout recipe is a great example of this (recipe section on CMherald.com). I can have a whopping serving of those and still come out having consumed only 500 calories. If I really focus on the technique of cooking them, or finding a new way to prepare them, that provides an artistic satisfaction that further eliminates my desire to consume food in excess. I come out stuffed along with the psychological satisfaction I get from eating a full plate of food. I really load up on the veggies, and never shy away from eating them. If I am even slightly hungry, I will reach for that first, with gusto. Once again, it’s about weaponizing the inborn desire for pleasure against your weight. Diversifying the pleasurable aspects of food to include things such as artistic expression, novelty, and the smartass feeling you get when you know you have cheated the system. You essentially are having your cake and eating it too.