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5 Steps to Perfect Portion Control

5 steps to perfect portion control from Drop Dead Healthy author A.J. JacobsBy A.J. Jacobs
Author of Drop Dead Healthy

My kids and I recently watched the movie Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. This is the one where giant steaks, ice cream scoops, pancakes and, of course, meatballs plummet from the sky and terrorize a town. It was funny. But it with a few tweaks, it could be turned into a terrifying documentary. OK, a lot of tweaks. Food isn’t falling from the sky. But food is getting bigger and bigger and terrorizing America.

In recent years, portions have experienced a puberty-like growth spurt. Consider: In 1916, a bottle of Coca-cola was 6.5 ounces. Today, it’s 20 ounces. A hamburger used to be about 300 calories. Now you can enjoy Hardees’s Monster Thickburger with 1,420 calories. (The average man should eat about 2,500 calories a day).

This portion inflation is why nutritionists offer the following sage counsel to Americans: Stop eating so much damn food. Below are the five best ways I found to tame the portion while writing Drop Dead Healthy.

Small plates, small forks, small everything. Pretend you are a Smurf, or a hobbit or Tom Cruise. What I’m saying is, someone tiny. Studies show that smaller plates mean smaller portions. I’m a fan of my sons’ Finding Nemo plates. I took it a step further and now eat with small forks and spoons. It slows my eating down and I am less likely to overgorge. (In other plate news, one recent study showed that colored plates often led to smaller portions, especially if the color contrasts with the food, which makes the food stand out visually.)

VIDEO: A.J. Jacobs Shares 3 Quick Tips to Improve Your Health

Practice Chewdaism. We are a nation of underchewers. Studies show that thorough chewing is healthier for two reasons. First, you get more nutrients from your meal. Second, and more important, you can’t eat as quickly, which allows time for stomach to send the “I’m full” message to the brain. (Which takes an absurd 20 minutes). You end up eating less.

You can find radical pro-chewing activists on the Internet (they’re the ones who coined the term Chewdaism, not me) who recommend up to 100 chews. Which is insane. It takes a day and a half to eat a sandwich. But I strive for 15.

An apple a day keeps the hunger away. A Penn State study showed that those who ate an apple before lunch consumed 187 fewer calories at lunch than those who ate applesauce. Also, soup and cayenne pepper have been shown to lower appetite. So have a cayenne soup with apple chunks. Good eatin’.

Never eat out of the container. The Cornell psychologist Brian Wansink wrote a book called Mindless Eating, which, as the title suggests, is about our tendency to trowel food thoughtlessly into our always-open mouths. To battle this, he says it’s important to create “pause points”—visual cues that slow us down. It’s why I repackage those monster bags of tortilla chips from Costco into little plastic Ziploc bags. I finish my seven-chip bag, and my brain figures, “Well, that was a portion. I might as well stop.” My brain is a sucker.

Don’t multitask. Studies show that we eat up to 71 percent more when we’re watching TV. Interestingly, that number varies depending on what show we’re watching; one study found that subjects who watched Letterman ate more than those who watched Leno. Depending on your interpretation, this is good for Letterman (his shows are so interesting, we forget to stop eating) or bad for Letterman (his audience is fatter and will soon die).


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