Food Quantity: Portion Control or Intuition?


As I continue my years in the nutrition and wellness industry, I find that there is often a division between dietitians that subscribe to one or the other philosophy when it comes to food quantity: portion control or intuitive eating. I see blogs and articles heavily promoting one or the other. But I would argue that these two approaches are not mutually exclusive of each other. They are both important approaches that can be used together for optimizing health. I was interviewed by a company called Healthy Steps by Jokari – a company that sells practical kitchen tools, including very useful portion control gadgets. They asked me what portion control means to me. The interview is provided here, although the video interview did not allow for me to expand on these concepts. So let’s explore this discussion in a bit more depth as we look at portion control, intuitive eating and another important eating approach – meal frequency.

Portion Control: Portion control is a tool that is used to show standard and appropriate serving sizes of foods. Examples of portion control tools would be comparing a deck of cards to represent 3 ounces of meat, or a baseball to represent a serving of starch or starchy vegetable. Or, even the useful products that companies like Healthy Steps sell to consumers that help load your plate with standard portions.  Portion control tools are meant to be a guide to what the USDA decides is an appropriate portion for most Americans based on research. Again, it’s merely a guide. In fact, I wish we renamed this to a more friendly approach – portion guidance. The word “control” seems so militaristic in nature and that is what turns many intuitive eating promoters off to this helpful tool. This approach was never meant to be something that would relinquish our right to listening to our own bodily cues. Portion guidance systems also help us to make sure we are eating enough of a given food. We are encouraged to eat a certain amount of fruit and vegetable servings each day (go to get your own custom plan by plugging in age, gender, weight, height and activity level) so we need to know how much a serving is.  Portion guidance seems to be especially helpful for my patients that were raised in the "clean plate club" and are now psychologically unable to end a meal until their plate is cleaned. They need to have a jumping off point to set up their plates, and then dial in the intuitive eating concepts. We use standardized portions when prescribing constant carbohydrate diets for diabetics in order to optimize blood sugars.  For instance, one portion of carbohydrate for diabetics is 15 grams, and they must know what those portions are in order to dose insulin and/or to stay within their carbohydrate prescription.  As you can see, portion guidance is a very useful tool in a variety of situations.

But before we talk about intuitive eating, let’s insert another eating approach here that sets us up well – meal frequency.

Meal Frequency: Americans are leading busier than ever lives and often times we go way too long to eat. Most of my weight management clients either skip meals or go way too long between meals. Many times this causes a person to not be satisfied by an appropriate meal portion. In fact, this can cause them to overeat in order to make up for the lost calories earlier in the day. My recommendation, consistent with current research, is to make sure you eat three solid meals and also include 1-2 in-between those meals in order to decrease your risk of (or treat) obesity. That way, you never come too hungry to a meal. Let’s be honest, it’s difficult to make optimal food choices when you’re starved. More than weight control, the correct meal frequency optimizes energy levels and  promotes both normal blood sugars and cholesterol levels. I do find that my patients get used to not eating breakfast and they ask me if they should eat even when they don’t feel like eating. This is the one meal of the day where I would say...yes. Your body needs to be re-trained to eat with regular frequency, and this will help start the progress.

And now we have intuitive eating.

Intuitive Eating: Meal frequency and portion guidance set-up allows us to practice intuitive eating. Intuitive eating is a nutrition philosophy or approach that encourages us to tune into our bodies more and eat for simply the feeling of hunger. Living in a world of multi-tasking, it can be difficult to do what seems like such an obvious thing. But we do. We eat because the clock tells us to do so (and we try to push our kids to do the same!), or because of stress, or boredom or a variety of emotional reasons. This approach is very important and something that all people should look at in their own lives. Many times people are not overweight because of food, but because of outside influences that drive us to eat in order to soothe our feelings or emotions. Obesity caused by emotional eating can dredge up fear around food because emotional eaters don’t feel in control in its presence. Intuitive eating concepts are important for the ex-clean plate clubber or the busy parent or the emotional eater. Let’s get back to the basics and eat for real physiological reasons. If you find that you are an emotional eater, consider getting support by a counselor or psychologist that specializes in this field.

When it comes to food quantity, all these 3 approaches - in my opinion – are great tools to be used together for optimal health. The right meal frequency combined with guidance using standard portions and then letting intuition do the rest. Combine that with food quality, and you are well on your way to living your best life!

Updated 12/31/2016

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