LifeTime WeightLoss Logo

« Ready to Start Your New Year's Resolution? Don't Fall Victim to These Bad Habits | Main | Top Nutrition & Weight Management Stories of 2010 »

Why Portion Control Rarely Works

Written by Anika Christ, RD, CISSN, NASM-CPT

“I just need to work on portion control…”  “I need to learn what the portion of each food is supposed to be, I was never taught…”  “I know why I gain weight; I have an issue with my portion sizes”

Have you caught yourself saying any one of these phrases before?  Maybe someone else? Maybe even a nutritional professional, has told that you need to work on or understand portion control to assist you with weight loss.  The majority of weight loss programs put a huge emphasis on portion control, whether it’s teaching you how and what to measure for food, or measuring the food for you with home delivery meal menus.  Either way, many people are not successful with a portion restricted program.  They may even point the blame on themselves and then reenlist into another similar program again weeks, months, or years later.  Before entering that cycle or questioning your own integrity, understand the science behind why such a program doesn’t always work for the human body and why it may be setting you up for sabotage.

Portion Size or Serving Size, the Confusion Starts Here

Understanding portion or serving sizes can be confusing.   A serving size is a unit of measure that describes a recommended amount of a certain food. A portion size, on the other hand, is the amount of a food that you choose to eat.   Portion size and serving size are often used interchangeably, although they are two completely different amounts of food.   Portion sizes are exactly what we consume, so your portion could be 1, 2, 3 or more servings.  Often when we go out to eat, we are served multiple servings as a portion, so don’t count on your favorite bagel vendor or sandwich shop to serve you the recommended serving size. 

To make matters more confusing, serving sizes come in an array of descriptions including ounces, cups, fractions, and single serving packets.  Every food group (fruits, starch, etc) and every food item (grapes, pasta, etc) has its own specific recommendation for a serving size, leaving the consumer with a long list of recommended servings to memorize.  Not to mention that different bodies with different amounts of lean tissue and different nutrient needs may not need to same serving size of food as other bodies do.  It may even lead the weight conscious consumer to choose foods where the serving size is outlined for them, such as it is on a food label. This increases the amount of processed and packaged food in their diet leaving the body to metabolize synthetic and artificial ingredients and miss other key nutrients needed for weight loss and overall health.

Nutrients and Quality Sacrificed

If we know and understand serving sizes and how to read them on the food label, we may find ourselves at the mercy of those food labels, so we can justify our total caloric intake for the day.  Focusing only on those foods that provide us that information leaves us with a lot of processed and high carbohydrate foods.  With this approach, it’s also common for people to avoid foods that don’t have a food label, including fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and animal protein.  What people might not realize, is that these are the foods that provide us not only the most nutrients, but the most quality nutrients.  Fat and protein, both needed to support a healthy metabolism, are most often decreased or eliminated completely with this approach. 

Most often, the reasoning for this that I hear from clients is because of the “volumetrics” approach.  The thought that a 100 calorie pack or cereal bar is less calories (and tastes better) than a serving of raw nuts or lean protein.  They may even get to dinner with few calories left for the day and opt to choose a “frozen dinner” (high in carbohydrates, low in fat and protein) because the calories are restricted and portion is determined for them.  Ironically enough, this way of eating actually does the exact opposite, it increases cravings and decreases satiety.  Think about it. If we naturally start decreasing fat (most calorically dense) and protein (most satisfying of all nutrients), we set ourselves up to be more hungry and crave even more processed and synthetic, high carbohydrate foods. 

Portions are right, so my calories are right.  Why am I not losing?

Many times I’ve read through clients’ food logs dialed down to perfection of “perfect portions” so in the sense, perfect calorie intake.  So why is he/she not losing?  Is it really inaccuracy?  Does the individual need to be even more careful with their measuring spoons and cups?  Do they need to learn to read the food label better?  This individual is usually frustrated beyond belief in the sense that they are working so hard, restricting so much, yet still sees no success.  In past articles, the idea that calorie restriction doesn’t always work has come across many times.  Maybe as little as 10% of us can be successful with calorie counting or portion control, but that leaves the majority of us in the shallow end with no progress or even success.  There are many things that can affect your ability to lose weight; including sex hormone balance, digestion, and stress to name a few.  We have the ability to confirm this information and check for biochemical disturbances that impact our weight, which gives us the best assessment of your underlying health.  With this information or not, we truly are what we eat.   Confirming the nutrients going into that body will not only  impact our weight and body composition, but will also affect whether or not we go towards the path of optimal health or the path towards disease.

Keys to Success

If we know portion control can set us up with sabotage through increased confusion, hunger, and lack of quality and wholesome foods; what is a more realistic answer for nutrition and weight loss?  How about focusing on what foods and nutrients the human body was designed to eat and live off of in the first place? These tend to be the foods that are often described as our “whole and natural” foods including raw nuts and seeds, fresh fruits and vegetables, and animal protein.  These foods are considered the most nutritionally dense of all foods and provide the most satiety; key components of weight loss.

Ask yourself first, can I improve the quality of my diet?  How much of the food I eat comes from the earth in a natural state and how much of it is processed and packaged?  Do I choose farmers or do I choose scientists when I decide who is responsible for the food I consume?  Once you improve the quality, work on the balance of nutrients (fat, carbohydrates and protein) at every meal.  Start by confirming that you have protein at each meal, along with a fruit or vegetable and healthy fat source.  Surprisingly enough, when we eat this way, the calories and the grams seem to take care of themselves.  This is a much needed relief for many of us who have been faced with failure from those portion restrictive programs that have left their brains filled with grams and calories of their favorite processed foods, instead of the foods we should be eating.

Share your thoughts below.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>