When One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Intuitive Eating and Portion Sizes
by Marsha Hudnall, MS, RDN, CD President & Co-owner, Green Mountain at Fox Run
The age-old question for dieters, “How much should I eat?” presents a built-in challenge to eating well in the use of the word “should,” as does the description of the person who asks the question… a “dieter.”
Diet rules have led many of us astray because they generally dictate what, when, and how much a person “should” eat. The trouble is, if a person wants something different than the rule, it often leads to issues when she breaks the rule. She feels defeated, guilty, depressed, and often gives up on trying to feed herself well, until she gets so desperate, she tries another diet.
The way out of this defeating cycle is through attuned eating or, as it’s more popularly referred to, intuitive eating. It’s an approach that uses the body’s internal guidance system that can very effectively tell you when, what, and how much to eat, to direct you in making the best choices for the health of your body.
Besides being a much more enjoyable way to eat, research also shows mindful, intuitive eating may be the best approach to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.
Three Key Steps to Mindful Eating
- Eat regularly, about every 3-5 hours. This helps you avoid becoming too hungry, which can lead to overeating.
- Eat balanced meals, including protein-rich foods, starchy foods, and vegetables and/or fruits at most. Use a plate model as a simple image to help you remember what makes up a balanced meal.
- Eat what you want. This can be a big leap for someone who has lived by diet rules for many years. The intent is to remove feelings of deprivation that can lead to overeating. One way to start practicing this without feeling overwhelmed is to make sure the foods you choose to eat are foods you really enjoy. Learning to eat “forbidden” foods can be a step down the road when you feel ready.
Portion Sizes as Places to Start
Then the question of how much to eat arises. Often when we think of portion sizes, visions of measuring and weighing our foods come to mind, but that’s not practical. Enter the plate model. Using regular-sized (about 9”) dinner plates, the plate model illustrates the types of food you want to eat at each meal, in portions that provide a place to start.
Rather than limiting how much you can have, think of portion sizes as a way to build in automatic stopping points where you can pause and think about whether you are still hungry or are satisfied. If you decide you need more, you can always go back. If you start with larger sizes, you’re often challenged with not eating the whole thing, regardless of how satisfied you feel.
Eating according to the plate model also helps you meet healthy eating recommendations without counting numbers of servings or measuring anything. It’s not important that you be exact with the proportions. Some days you might eat a little more protein food, or grains/starchy vegetables might take up a little more on the plate. But if you find yourself continually shortchanging one food group and adding to another, you might want to explore the reasons why.
What to do when the plate model doesn’t fit? Not every meal divides up so easily. Mixed dishes like casseroles, stews and pizzas obviously combine the foods groups into one. In these cases, we want to use our best visual estimate – that’s good enough.
Here are a few other visual images that may help:
- One serving (3 ounces) of meat, fish, poultry = the palm of your hand or a deck of cards
- One serving (1 ½ ounces) cheese = 6 dice
- One serving (1 ounce) nuts = a handful
- One serving bread = 1 slice or ½ English muffin or small Lender’s-type bagel
- One serving (1/2 cup) potatoes, hot cereal, cooked vegetables, chopped, canned or cooked fruit = a tennis ball
- One serving fresh fruit = a tennis ball
- Two servings (1 cup) cooked vegetables or fruit = the size of your fist
- One serving (1 cup) raw leafy vegetables = the size of your fist
- One serving (1 teaspoon) oil or butter = the size of the tip of your thumb
Learning to Trust Your Gut with Attuned Eating
Finally, it’s worth re-emphasizing that paying attention to standard portion sizes can help us put together a meal or snack that gives us a good start in having enough. But because our hunger levels vary, it doesn’t always mean that we won’t actually need a second serving. It also doesn’t mean that we always need the whole portion to feel satisfied. That’s where trusting our bodies comes in – understanding its signals and then responding to them intelligently.