It's no wonder many people find it hard to understand the serving sizes specified on food labels. Are the labels telling us what an average serving size is supposed to be? Or is the amount specified purely arbitrary, or even engineered to make a food look more healthful than it would be if consumed in "real-world'' portions?
Even more mysterious are the reasons why we don't do a better job choosing the right serving sizes for our bodies when we're putting food on our plates. "Why," one patient asked, "do I continually serve myself more food than I need?"
The body is a precise machine. It knows exactly what to do with the food we put into it. If we're eating more than we're using, it stores the rest. If we're eating too little, it consumes stored energy. It's ingenious, really, and we should be grateful for that.
Unfortunately, the mind is not as precise as the body. The mind can be fooled by signals in the environment (such as the mountains of appetizing foods on buffets). There are many factors involved in appetite that can lead to us to overserving. It's not a simple matter of willpower.
Here are some factors that can influence you to reach for larger portions than your body needs:
Family history: Perhaps while growing up you saw family members piling the food on their plates. So you think that's normal. To serve yourself smaller portions than your family did might make you feel deprived and leave you wanting more. Food habits learned at an early age can explain why you serve yourself too much today. Discover what family food habits are making you choose too much food.
Societal norms: Portions shown on advertisements and served in restaurants have increased in size tremendously through the years. Every time we're shown or served larger portions than our body needs, it influences what we, as a society, consider normal portions. Pay attention to distorted messages you get from the outside world about normal portions.
Mood: Of course food makes us feel good. If it didn't, we wouldn't eat and we wouldn't thrive. So, when we're having emotional difficulties (such as stress, depression, loneliness, or anxiety) we might tend to look for comfort in all the wrong places. Naturally, we choose rich comfort foods, not celery sticks. Seeking comfort in food can easily lead to choosing larger portions. Since this type of comfort is short-lived, however, it's best to figure out what the emotional problem really is and go about solving it.
Size: People can easily fool themselves into thinking that they're serving themselves the proper amount because they're eating foods that are small in size. For example, nuts (although a nutritious food) pack a lot of calories into a small package. You might grab a handful thinking it's a small portion when it actually isn't. Of even more concern are those foods (often the highly processed ones) that are also small and have little nutrition. Don't let the size of calorie-dense foods fool you.
Fill factor: Many people end up eating larger portions, because they tend to eat foods that are low in fiber. They learn through experience that just one doughnut, for example, isn't going to give them a full feeling, so they grab more than one. On the other hand, fiber-rich foods take up a lot more space on your plate and are more filling. So, by simply eating high fiber you'll have better portion control.
Hunger levels: Letting your hunger become ravenous is a no-win situation. Even the best of us can't fight the drive to eat larger amounts than we need when we allow hunger to get to an extreme. Always try to eat when hunger is manageable.
So, you see, the answer to the question, "Why do I serve myself more food than I need?" can be multifaceted. But once you know what kinds of things influence you to reach for more food than you need, you will be better able to zero in on the culprits and start giving your body more of what it actually needs instead of what you think it needs.
Dr. Lavinia Rodriguez is a Tampa psychologist and expert in weight management. She is the author of "Mind Over Fat Matters: Conquering Psychological Barriers to Weight Management." Send questions to her at email@example.com.