February 13, 2013

Six Tips for Portion Control: February Challenge

Okay, here’s a post that’s been a long time coming: My February challenge. Welcome to (or fine, join me midway through) the month I focus on portion control!

As I’ve constantly been reminded by Brynn at Refine Method, exercise alone is not enough. I’ve noticed from my own anecdotal “research” that eating well is the only thing that actually helps me lose weight, no matter how much I work out. Plus, I wanted to do something a bit different than my work out every day January challenge (especially since I’ve decided to continue that to the end of March). I didn’t want to give up alcohol or desserts, since I’m going on trips to (Mystery Destination), Spain, and Italy in the next few weeks, but I thought that portion control would be a good way to practice healthy eating without being too restrictive.

So far, it’s actually working out fairly well. While I haven’t changed my exercise, I’ve been losing a bit of weight in the last few weeks and noticing some changes in my appearance – and I think the major factor in that is because I’ve been avoiding overindulging. I absolutely won’t profess to being perfect about it (see: my total lack of portion control on Saturday night), but since I’ve been doing better 90% of the time, I’ve noticed that my splurges the other 10% of the time are far less indulgent than they once were. Eating some (not all) of the disco fries and nachos on Saturday night made me feel horrifically sick to my stomach, whereas just a few months ago I could have housed the whole plate and felt fine. Or today, when I was upset at work about something, I found myself doing some “emotional eating” damage to the cookies in our bullpen – but I only had one cookie, not five. It’s kind of silly to point out the things like that, but I’m happy with that progress and seeing how little things can make a big difference.

So what have I been doing differently that’s had this effect? Well, I’ve read all the diet books and magazines out there, and there are so many techniques for controlling portion sizes. But for me, the best course of action has been using a little bit of all of them, rather than adhering to any single strategy all the time. Here are some examples:

Start your meal with a light app
Some advice will tell you to skip the app entirely and just get an entree, but that’s tough to do in a business setting when everyone else is ordering multiple courses that coincide with each other. I get way too hungry (and jealous!) watching other people eat when I’ve forbidden myself from doing the same, and I hate feeling deprived or like the odd man out. Instead, I’ve taken a cue from The Wall Street Diet and tried to find an extremely light app at each type of restaurant. At a steakhouse, the shrimp cocktail is a good choice; when I’ve gone out for Asian food, I go for some Vietnamese summer rolls. Starting with something light helps to take the edge off my hunger, and makes the entire experience feel like a bigger meal (since it’s more courses than just one) but also doesn’t get me off on the wrong foot with too many calories.

Eat with a like-minded friend
One of my favorite people to eat with in Dallas is my friend Blake, who is also trying to slim down. I admire her for having far more resolve than I often do, and eating with her definitely helps keep me on track. For example, one time when we went for sushi, she said that she was going to order a bowl of miso soup and then maybe we could split two rolls. It was so easy to just take my cue from her for what to eat, particularly since I always have trouble figuring out how much sushi to order. Blake set a particularly good example, but in general, choosing to dine with any friends who care about their health will go a long way toward resetting what’s “normal” instead of the “anything goes” approach that many take toward restaurant dining.

Drink less to drink less
This blog has never been about cutting out alcohol to get healthy. (Come on, where’s the fun in that?) But during last year’s Alcohol-Free August, I was reminded that if you drink less alcohol, you’ll need less alcohol to get the same buzz. Tolerance may be a good thing for college frat parties and their associated drinking games, but when watching your weight, “lightweights” win. You mean I can get buzzed from one glass of wine instead of three? That saves me calories and money – a win-win.

Eat at home more
As I mentioned earlier, February is a really big travel month for me, but I’ve been psyched to get to eat eight meals at home this month! It feels like such a luxury to get to cook, and I love that cooking makes it possible for me to try some rather indulgent dishes while making substitutions to “healthify” them a bit. (E.g., a blue cheese cream sauce made from a combo of Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, and a bit of blue cheese to provide flavor.) On the one hand, sometimes getting used to the healthy versions of recipes can get you in trouble when you go out and forget that restaurants don’t take the same care in preparation (wait, what do you mean that your turkey burgers aren’t with the lean ground turkey that every home cook buys?). But on the plus side, eating at home (or at a friend’s house) gives me a chance to remember what regular portion sizes even look like, compared to the gargantuan plates that many restaurants serve.

Decide up front how much to have
Okay, I know this is not very attractive, but sometimes when I start eating something yummy, I find that I just keep chowing down until it’s all gone – no matter how much there was on the plate. (No, I was not a test subject in Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating studies, but I very well could have been.) Now, when I get an entree at a restaurant, I try to eyeball it first. Is half the plate a reasonable portion? A third? Deciding before I take a bite how much I am going to have helps me set the rules before I actually discover how delicious the meal is – and having the rules set ahead of time makes it harder for me mentally to break them. So if I see a massive plate of barbecue come out, I know that I should eat about 1/4 of it and then leave the rest of my plate. It’s a lot easier to do the division when you still have the whole thing there to gauge amount!

Try only a few bites, then share
I definitely haven’t given up on dessert this month, particularly when I’ve had the chance to check out a few new Dallas restaurants with some yummy stuff on the menu (Dear Boulevardier and your insanely amazing bourbon bread pudding: I’m looking at you). However, I’ve been making an effort to remind myself that only the first few bites are the best – and that perhaps my dining companions would like to share the rest? Having a few bites of dessert lets me taste the sweet deliciousness and feels indulgent, but it actually doesn’t hurt me that much to only have a little bit. I’ve found that many of my colleagues are big into sharing dessert anyway, so this one is pretty easy to put into practice when you get to that moment of, “so should we get dessert or not?” Suggest getting some to share, then be “generous” in moving the plate away from you quickly 🙂

So – I want to conclude this post by noting that I absolutely do not follow all these techniques all the time. Some nights I am eating by myself; some nights no one is ordering apps/dessert and I don’t feel as compelled to have one; and some nights, I just want to indulge. But this month, I’ve definitely learned a lot more about how to “indulge” in moderation – so it doesn’t take nearly as much to satisfy.

What are your best tips for portion control?


7 thoughts on “Six Tips for Portion Control: February Challenge”

  1. Great tips! I really like the one that says decide how much you are going to eat upfront. I often forget to do this, but it does really help! I’ll be trying to use some of these myself. It sounds like you have a lot of great trips planned!

  2. It helps me a lot to order dinner as soon as I go somewhere, rather than having a few drinks first. I am more likely to eat something healthy before the alcohol has convinced me that nachos sound really good or whatever.

  3. Melissa, Emily, and Maureen, so glad these are helpful!

    Lee, that’s a great point about figuring out the menu before you start drinking. I also usually try to look at the menu online before I go and plan ahead – it works especially well if you do that right after a meal or another time when you’re not hungry.

  4. I have MAJOR issues with portion control. Obviously you and I both workout enough — I can’t do more exercise to combat the pounds. I’ve gained a few lately and want to lose them but struggle so much in the evenings with portion control. For me, I think it has to be decide up front how much to have. At night, food always feels like my reward for making it through the day but I’ve got to get away from that. I appreciate that others are working on it too! Aalways helps to know you aren’t alone 🙂

  5. Ericka, last year I took a solo vacation where the food on the property was expensive, so I ended up eating protein bars some of the time and only venturing out to the restaurants off-property once a day. It showed me a LOT about how much I actually like to eat when it’s not convenient – I learned that I like a medium breakfast, a BIG lunch, and a very tiny dinner. (Unfortunately, that doesn’t work for me when I’m traveling for business.) I can definitely relate to food at the end of the night feeling like a reward after a long day!

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