We suck at portion control. When food is placed in front of us, we tend to follow mum's advice and clean our plates, even when it's more than we actually want. Here's why we do that, as well as a few tricks to keep yourself from overeating.
The occasional bout of overeating is inevitable, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. But when we do it too often, it not only increases the chance of gaining weight, it also just makes us feel gross for a couple hours. Science is still unravelling the mysteries of exactly why this is, but we do know a few reasons behind it and a few tricks to help keep it from happening.
The Psychology Behind Why We Suck at Portion Control
If you've ever felt the burn of eating an entire bag of chips in one sitting, then you know we aren't wired for portion control. Put some tasty food in front of a person, and chances are they will gobble it all down until the plate's empty. There's a science behind overeating in general as well, but we'll just take a look at why researchers think we're so bad a portion control in particular.
A number of experiments over the years have watched this happen. One experiment in 2005 used self-refilling soup bowls to look at visual cues in relation to portion control. Essentially, a tube was hooked up to the bottom of a bowl of soup. As people ate, the actual volume never decreased. The result? Participants with the auto-refilling bowl ate an astounding 73 per cent more than those who had normal bowls without even noticing.
Another study, done in 2006, looked at what happens when we're offered food from different-sized containers. For example, when participants were given a big scoop to grab their own M&Ms from a bowl, they filled up the whole scoop and ate it all. If it was a smaller scoop, they did the same. Essentially, the size of the scoop determined how much was "enough". This study also gave us the name unit bias: the tendency to finish off a given unit of an item when it's offered. In an interview with NPR, behaviour psychologist Matt Wallaert sums up unit bias like so:
Nobody eats one and a quarter apples, right? The unit is an apple. And so you eat an apple. And so you can apply that same sort of experimental logic to things like bags of chips. And you can actually make a bag of chips 20 per cent bigger, and 20 per cent smaller. And people still eat one bag of chips, and they eat until it's done.
Basically, we don't know when to put on the brakes with food. That's not just on the plate either; if food comes in a package that looks like a single serving, we'll treat it like one, even when it's not. As this article in the Wall Street Journal points out, bite-sized snacks are just as capable of making us overeat as an endless bowl of soup:
Certain types of eaters — people who are concerned about how they look or who aren't naturally good at controlling their eating — see bite-size pieces of food as "zero calories." In doing so, they tend to eat more than a regular-sized version of the food, says Pierre Chandon, a marketing professor who studies eating behaviour at Insead, an international business school based in France. "Twenty-five calories is not a serving, so we nibble without thinking we are eating," he says.
Essentially, we eat what's in front of us because we're not thinking about it, and there isn't any clear sign to stop eating. It doesn't necessarily have to do with our hunger, it's likely more about the environmental cues. It's not just unhealthy food either — we'll do this with everything from broccoli to chocolate cake. While the long-term health effects are different depending on what you eat, the short-term effects — that horrible feeling you get when you eat way too much — is pretty much the same no matter what you're eating.
How to Keep Your Portions In Check
Keeping your portions in check is a lot easier said than done. If you eat at a restaurant you're likely getting more food than you actually need, and cooking for yourself often yields the same results.
Since we know we're almost always going to eat what's in front of us, one step is to prepare the right amount of food in the first place. This is surprisingly hard, but as we've shown you before, you can measure portions with just your hands to make the prep a little easier. If you get the portion right in the first place, chances are that once you've eaten and clean your plate you won't be hungry.
Scaling back your portions on snacks is one of the toughest things to do. As we've pointed out before, the best thing you can do is eat normal-sized portions of healthier food. Say, a cup of blueberries and some almonds instead of a giant bowl of ice cream. Is this easy? No, not at all. It requires a complete change to your diet, but at least you still get to eat.
Part of the issue with portion control is also just simple packaging: a bag of chips, microwave meal or candy might look like a single portion because it's packaged in a single box. If you actually look at the details, you'll see that the serving size inside that box is more than one. The only thing you can really do here is pour out those chips or whatever else into a bowl instead of eating them directly from the box. At the very least, when you get to the bottom of the bowl, you'll have to get up and refill it if you want more.
The same idea even extends to plate sizes. When you use smaller plates, you're less likely to eat more or go back for seconds. Even the size of the fork has been shown to change how much we eat. It's not foolproof by any means, but it's one of the subtle ways to get your portions down.
More recent is the idea of "mindful eating". This seeks to tackle the idea that we go unconscious when we're eating head on. The thought is that if we actually think about what we're eating while we're doing it, we're more likely to pay attention to the cues to stop eating. Essentially, mindful eating is about slowing down and practising self control. Does it work? Arguments both pro and con are out there. It's no secret that slowing down eating gives you the opportunity to actually pay attention to your hunger, but it's surprisingly hard in practice.
It's worth noting that portion control isn't some magic diet trick. Sure, it's helpful for losing weight, and training yourself to recognise when you're full is good in the long run. But you'll still need all that other stuff like healthy eating and exercise. The fact is that since most of this happens without us realising it, controlling portions is a heck of a lot harder than it seems like it should be.