The Get Real Diet
With massive amounts of food available at every turn, even health-conscious eaters can easily go overboard. Here’s how to eighty-six the excess.
BY Alexa Joy Sherman
A key message in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 was “avoid oversized portions.” Appropriate advice for our ever-expanding meals and waistlines, but a tough concept for many people to, well, swallow. “Portion sizes have subtly and steadily increased over the past 30 years and are now two to five times larger,” says Lisa R. Young, PhD, RD, an adjunct nutrition professor at New York University and author ofThe Portion Teller: Smartsize Your Way to Permanent Weight Loss. “Even the average dinner plate has grown several inches to accommodate more food. We’ve become so accustomed to buying and eating things in large quantities, it can be hard to get a handle on what constitutes a normal portion.” Another part of the problem is that food is more affordable and accessible than ever, notes Brian Wansink, PhD, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab in Ithaca, N.Y., and author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. “Buying a candy bar 50 years ago was a rare treat, now it’s something you can buy whenever you want,” he says. “If you’re hungry for ice cream, it’s in your freezer or the nearest vending machine or convenience store.”
Despite the dangers these food cues and conditions present to your diet, you can reclaim control, Wansink says: “You simply need to set up your environment so you’ll eat less.” Here’s how.
1. DO SOME LIGHT READING
You can’t scale back your portions until you know how much you should be consuming. Forget about the labels on the front of food containers. Flip the package over, and pay close attention to how many calories and fat grams are in one serving, and how many servings the food provides. “A large bagel or muffin will typically provide you with all your grains for the dayand then some,” notes Young. For a handy cheat sheet you can post on your fridge, go to vegetariantimes.com/servingsavvy.
2. MEASURE UP
You don’t have to be an obsessive-compulsive calorie counter, but breaking out the food scale or measuring cups and spoons will help you grasp exactly how much you’ve been consuming and what a real portion size looks like. “I have my clients do a seven-day portion challenge, where they weigh and measure everything to get their eyes recalibrated,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, a Chicago-based dietitian and author of The Flexitarian Diet. “After that week, you can survive for a while, but because there are context clues all around, telling us to eat more than we should, I recommend doing a week of weighing and measuring every quarter.”
3. COOK CAREFULLY
You might think prepping your own meals will help guarantee you keep calories and quantities in check, but beware: When Wansink recently looked at recipes for the same dishes in seven different editions of The Joy of Cooking, spanning 70 years, the number of calories per serving went up by a whopping 44 percent. “These recipes were once intended to serve nearly twice as many people as they do today, so don’t let a full portion get anywhere near your plate,” says Wansink. Creating your own concoctions can also be a slippery slope, especially with high-fat ingredients. “Never hold a bottle of oil without having a measuring spoon in the other hand,” says Blatner. “That really helps cut back on sneaky calories you don’t even think about when you’re making stir-fries and things like that.”
4. DOWNSIZE YOUR DINNERWARE
It almost sounds too easy: serve your meals on smaller plates or bowls and you’ll be satisfied with less. But studies confirm it’s true. Specifically, Wansink found that people at a health-and-fitness camp who were given larger bowls served and consumed 16 percent more cereal than those given smaller bowls.
5. GET THE BALANCE RIGHT
For perfectly proportioned portions, follow the 25-25-50 rule: “A quarter of your plate should be whole grains, a quarter should be protein, and half should be vegetables,” says Blatner. “It’s shocking how much the simple act of reportioning the plate helps people lose weight.” For a more visual guide, invest in some ultrachic Slimware (slimware.com).
6. WRITE ON
For at least a week, log everything you eat in a food journal. “The most important thing is just the act of logging,” says Blatner. “It keeps you a lot more mindful and conscious of what you’re eating.” It can be as simple as jotting down “16-ounce soy latte,” “2 cups pasta,” etc., on a piece of paperor even on your smartphone.
7. VEG OUT
Veggies (of the nonstarchy variety) are the one food group you can consume with absolute abandon. “If you cut calories by eating smaller portions of every food, you’ll feel hungry and deprived,” says Barbara Rolls, PhD, professor of nutritional sciences at Pennsylvania State University and author of The Volumetrics Eating Plan. “So even as you scale back your quantities of high-calorie foods, you can ramp up the low-calorie ones.” To get those quantities up, keep plenty of fresh and frozen veggies on hand and add them to every meal. Keep baby carrots and other crudités cut up in the fridge orbetter yetkeep a bountiful bowl out on your kitchen counter.
8. TAKE A SEAT
Mindless grazingwhether it’s at a party or simply standing in front of your refrigeratoris one of the easiest ways to lose track of how much you’re consuming. “If you don’t have a table, a plate, and a chair, there’s an overwhelming pull to mindlessly overeat,” says Blatner. “So don’t allow yourself to eat unless you have those three things.”
9. BEWARE OF “HEALTH” FOODS
Three recent studies conducted by Wansink found that low-fat labels on snack foods encouraged people to eat up to 50 percent more than those who weren’t subjected to such claims. “When consumers see the ‘low-fat’ label, they assume it has fewer calories and overestimate an appropriate portion size,” says Wansink. But it’s not just misleading labels that cause us to go overboard.” ‘Health halo foods’whole-grain cereals, pastas, nutsare fine in moderation, but a disaster when you overdo them,” says Young.
10. STASH THE LEFTOVERS
“Serve up your meal and then put the rest away before you sit down to eat,” suggests Blatner. “That way there’s no environmental cuing to have more, and you’ll be able to enjoy that meal for the next few days. It’s the ‘cook once, eat twice’ rule.”
11. SHRINK THE DRINKS
“In the ’50s, a small soda was 12 ounces and a large was 16,” notes Young. “Today the 12-ounce size is called kiddie and the 16-ounce is called small.” A year ago, Starbucks announced its new 31-ounce Trenta. “Do we really need a quart-size beverage for one person?” Young asks. “Many of these drinks contain as much as 500 calories.” Translation: if you love your caloric liquids, limit yourself to the smallest size available, once a day. When considering cocktails, women should also stick to one drink a day (e.g., a 5-ounce glass of wine, 12 ounces of beer, a 1.5-ounce shot of liquor), and men should have no more than two.
12. SIDESTEP RESTAURANT PITFALLS
When you leave the food prep to someone else, you run the risk of getting exponentially more than you want or need. To minimize the excess, forgo starchy freebies such as chips and salsa or bread and butter, advises Young. When ordering, think outside the entrée. “Look at the à la carte, the sides, the appetizers, and put together your own meal. Maybe you get lentil soup and a house salad,” says Blatner. Or order an entrée to share. “Split the food with your dining companion, or ask the server to box up half of itor be really bold and tell them to only bring you half of it,” suggests Wansink.
13. DON’T GET TOO HUNGRY
Ever notice how a rumbling stomach can break your willpower? Blame it on hormonesspecifically ghrelin, which spikes appetite and increases cravings for less healthful foods. “You don’t have to stick to a strict feeding schedule,” says Young. Just make sure you’re not going so long between meals or snacks that your blood sugar drops, your appetite spikes, and the entire concept of portion control goes AWOL. “Keep an apple and some raw nuts, a pear and string cheese, or raw veggies and hummus at your office or prepped in your fridge,” suggests Blatner. “That way you’ll have something small and nutritious ready the moment hunger strikes.”
14. SLOW DOWN
The faster you eat, the more you consume. “It’s estimated that slowing down saves you about 70 calories per meal automatically, so over a three-meal day that’s 210 calories a day, which is theoretically 22 pounds a year,” notes Blatner. “The other hidden advantage of eating slowlyreally chewing your foodis you’ll have less digestive upset, less gas and bloating, and enjoy your food more.”
15. TAPER THE TOPPINGS
The danger of adding sauces and dressings is just the beginning. “A huge percentage of people don’t know how much calories add up from the nuts, dried fruit, and sugar they put on their oatmeal, or all the seeds, cheese, and beans on their salads,” says Blatner. “Variety has been shown to stimulate appetiteto be portion savvy, stick to one protein, one whole grain, one fatty item, and all types of produce at each meal. It keeps it streamlined and doesn’t overstimulate your palate so much that you overeat.”
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