Having your cake and eating it...the psychology of portion control

If you know that yousometimes eat more than you need, here are some simple tips to help you control the size of your portions...

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Portion it out first

A famous scientific study gave movie-goers a small or large portion of popcorn to enjoy whilst watching their film. Half of them received fresh popcorn whilst the other half received a bucket full of old, stale and bad tasting popcorn. What the researchers found was that both groups ate more when given the larger portion, even though those who ate the stale stuff found they didn't like it!

The message...as humans we're wired to eat what is there. Maybe it's something to do with our genetics when food was scare, maybe it's just that if we're distracted doing something else we continue to eat unconsciously. Whatever the reason, the message is clear; prepare your portions carefully. Rather than take the whole packet of nuts to work, pop some into Tupperware and leave the rest at home, rather than have the entire jumbo bag of crisps next to you on Friday evening, pour a few into a bowl. You'll often find your can't be bothered to get up to go and get some more.

Out of sight, out of mind

The food science expert, Brian Wansink, has carried out numerous studies on human behaviour and eating. He's noted that people tend to eat less chicken wings in a restaurant if the waiter leaves the plate of bones on the table rather than continuously taking them away, that if a bowl of soup keep refilling, people will continue to eat from it and that leaner individuals tend to sit facing away from an all-you-can-eat buffet. 

Here are a few things you can try to put this research to good use:

• Put the treats away and make the fruit bowl clearly visible. Wansink notes that people will eat what they see, so having the biscuit tin on show continuously puts the idea of eating biscuits into your brain.

• If you've cooked too much, rather than put it on the table and tempt yourself into finishing it off, put it in some Tupperware and have it for lunch tomorrow or freeze it for a rainy night if you can

• Make it as difficult as possible to access those treats. Wrap them up, put them inside a box in another box, lock them away, whatever makes it a pain to actually go and get them

• Better still, choose your shopping carefully. It's been shown that on average, almost 75% of the food we eat comes from that which we have at home. That means if you don't have the worse choices there, you're much less likely to consume them.

Recognise the danger times and places

Lots of behavioural research in many different contexts shows that people who plan ahead tend to be more successful in what they're doing. The same is true in this instance; spend some time identifying when and where you're likely to go off the rails and build a plan to either avoid or cope with these situations. Planning prevents poor portion performance! ;-) 

Use smaller plates

I've mentioned this one numerous times before but it's worth revisiting. The same amount of food on a smaller plate appears more filling to the eye, or brain I should say. It's known as the Delboeuf illusion and it really works.

This picture, from my book, The Complete Guide to Weight Loss, shows how a larger plate (the black bit), can make a portion of food (the blue bit), appear smaller and therefore less filling.

This picture, from my book, The Complete Guide to Weight Loss, shows how a larger plate (the black bit), can make a portion of food (the blue bit), appear smaller and therefore less filling.

Remind yourself of your goals

People will work harder to achieve things that are more important to them. Firstly, make sure you've set yourself a goal that you REALLY want to achieve, one that has a powerful WHY behind it. Sometimes though, that's still not enough; life is busy and stressful and so it can be easy to be distracted from your targets and end up doing things you know won't help.

For this reason, it's important to do what you can to keep your goals and the powerful reasons for them at the forefront of your mind. Write or print them out and stick them on the fridge, on your desk, the dashboard of your car, or use a photo of them as your phone screensaver. It might make the difference in those moments of weakness.