Everyone knows that portion control is key to managing weight. • The problem is that, much as we might want to control our weight, psychologically nobody likes to lose anything they value — like food. The mind deals better when things are added rather than subtracted. • Intellectually, you know that it is more healthful to eat reasonable portions. But emotionally, you still want the entire carton of ice cream, not just a scoop. • So, how do we reduce portions without our minds protesting?
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The first thing to remember is that when it comes to food, need and want are two separate issues. If the mind always told us to eat only what we needed to recover whatever we burned up in activity, few of us would be overweight.
But life isn't that simple. Need is just one determinant of appetite. Stress, habits, the types of foods we eat and even how much we sleep can all have a lot to do with how much we eat.
Let's take a closer look at each factor:
Most people lose their appetites when stress is extreme (such as when a loved one dies or you've been in a car accident). However, some people experience an increased appetite when they are under moderate, chronic stress. The feeling of being unsettled from moderate stress has a tendency to induce the body to try to calm itself with eating. This usually means eating larger portions in an attempt to find that feeling of calm satisfaction.
Better solutions include learning to manage stress through such methods as regular exercise, yoga, meditation, soothing music and confronting any problem thinking that leads to greater stress.
Just as with Pavlov's dogs, if you usually eat under certain conditions your mind will learn to expect that association.
For example, if you start eating every night while watching TV, you'll start salivating and your stomach will start releasing gastric juices to prepare for eating whenever you sit down to watch your favorite shows. You may feel it as hunger or a craving for your usual TV snacks. If you try to keep from eating, your brain will keep insisting that you obey, making it extremely difficult to break the habit with "cold-turkey" methods.
Instead, aim for small steps toward changing your habit so you'll keep motivated. You might focus on gradually changing the quality of the foods you eat while watching TV. Then work on reducing the quantities.
Another useful technique is to do something incompatible with eating during the time you usually watch TV. Working on a craft or doing your stretches can distract you from eating.
What and how we eat
The types of foods we eat and their nutritional value also have an effect on appetite and, consequently, the amounts we eat. The reasons for this are both physiological and psychological. The brain's job is to keep you alive and well. If we eat poorly, the brain will attempt to get us to eat what we need. But, when we don't provide the body with what it needs, the brain will keep demanding, and the tendency will be to eat too much of the foods you do eat.
It's also true that eating too much sugar or starchy, non-nutritive foods (like white breads, pastas and cereals) can destabilize blood sugar levels in your body, which can have an effect on hunger and appetite.
Fiber in foods is filling. A low-fiber diet contributes to eating bigger portions because we need to eat more to feel the same amount of fullness.
Being too restrictive and rigid with eating can create a psychological state of deprivation that makes you more preoccupied with the foods you're trying to eliminate and later cause you to eat larger portions of those foods. This is what usually causes bingeing behavior.
According to the National Institutes of Health, when people don't sleep enough, they are more likely to be overweight or obese, develop diabetes and prefer high-calorie, high-carb foods. If you are concerned about portion control, pay attention to your sleep patterns.
There are other factors that also can influence portion control, such as drinking alcohol, which causes us to eat more, and the easy availability of food (the open doughnut box at the office).
So, as with most issues surrounding eating and weight, portion control is not as simple as just telling yourself, "Don't eat." Take the time to wisely examine how your lifestyle may be encouraging you to keep eating when it's not necessary. Then you can start addressing those issues gradually and control your portion sizes without setting your mind up for a full-scale rebellion.
Lavinia Rodriguez, Ph.D., is a Tampa psychologist and expert in weight management. She is the author of "Mind Over Fat Matters: Psychological Barriers to Weight Management." Send your questions to her at DrRod@FatMatters.com.