If you’ve ever looked down at a “healthy” portion of pasta and thought to yourself, “This could MAYBE feed a gerbil.”, you aren’t alone.

We’ve all seen those portion control articles that compare healthy food portions to things like golf balls and decks of cards. Most of the time, those articles aren’t helpful. They are just another nagging reminder of something we know we should be doing.

It is fairly common knowledge portion control can be a major challenge. It’s not that we don’t know what the right portions are, it’s that we have a hard time eating the right portions of day-to-day life.

The constant battle to avoid overeating foods like meat, pasta, rice, cheese, sauces, creamy soups, desserts and so much more can be exhausting. It makes it easy to wonder if this whole portion control thing is a lost cause.

The Common (but wrong) Approach

Most people think the problem is simply eating too much food. So, they assume the solution is to eat smaller versions of what they were previously eating. Then at the end of a meal, they don’t feel satisfied and pray they have enough willpower to avoid going back for seconds.

This approach rarely works because overconsumption isn’t the problem. It is the result of the actual problem. Additionally, always feeling unsatisfied and relying solely on willpower to eat healthy portions is no way to live a healthy and happy life. There are better ways to eat healthy portions and still feel full and satisfied.

Understanding the Actual Problem

First, we need to understand the real problem and use that information to our advantage to make constructive and sustainable changes.

It is a common misconception that satisfaction and fullness are determined by the actual amount of food eaten. In reality, the determination is done in the brain based on learned portion sizes and the amount of food we see on our plate.

So, even after eating enough food to fuel our bodies properly, our brains sometimes try to convince us we need more. This is due to three major processes that influence the amount we eat.

  1. Physiological – The physical sensations of hunger and fullness.
  2. Cognitive – Social norms, learned behavior and learned perception.
  3. Sensory – The influence of our five senses with sight being the biggest influencer.

How does this all fit together? Physiological cues tell us when we are physically hungry. To relieve hunger, we visually portion out and eat the amount of food we think our bodies need based on portion sizes we’ve learned over time. The problem is the portion sizes we’ve learned are generally too large. This is as also known as portion distortion.

Portion distortion is the inability to recognize healthy portion sizes as being adequate due to the drastic increase in portions throughout modern day culture (particularly in the United States). Our brains have essentially been conditioned to perceive super-sized meals, bottomless buffets and enormous portions of the new “normal.”  Then to feel full and satisfied the amount of food we see on our plates and consume must match the “super-sized” portions that our brains have learned.

PROBLEM: Portion distortion causes overeating because our brains have been taught to eat much more food than our bodies need. If we eat less than what our brains perceive to be “normal” we feel unsatisfied despite having fed our bodies enough food.

SOLUTION: Use visual cues to reverse portion distortion and retrain the brain to be able to recognize healthy portion sizes as being satisfactory and filling.

METHOD: Increase the perceived portion sizes while reducing actual portions eaten to make your brain think you are eating more when you are actually eating less. To increase perceived portion sizes make small adjustments to the way food is prepared, served and eaten by using the simple yet effective strategies outlined below. The goal is to make a particular portion of food appear larger than it is.

Strategy 1 – Filler Ingredients

Use Filler Ingredients to increase the perceived portion of food.

Filler Ingredients are healthy foods,  such as lean meat, tofu, vegetables, fruits, and beans, that are used to bulk up a meal or recipe. By mixing healthy Filler Ingredients with a particular food item, the brain perceives the portion size to be larger because the overall volume of the meal has increased which diminishes the visual impact of a small portion of one particular food.

Filler Ingredients Geometric Visual

Pasta is used in the example below because pasta is one of the largest pain points when it comes to portion control. In fact, the average serving of pasta in the United States is 480% larger than the USDA recommendation.

Option A and Option B contain the same amount of pasta. Broccoli and chicken were used as Filler Ingredients in Option B.

Option A forces you to focus on the small portion size which convinces your brain that you will not be full or satisfied before you even start eating.

In Option B, your brain is unable to recognize the portion of pasta as being small because your attention is drawn to a full bowl of food versus focusing on one specific ingredient. The Filler Ingredients on Option B help convince your brain that the amount of pasta in Option B is adequate even though the amount of pasta has not changed.

Filler Ingredients Pasta

Strategy 2 – Volume

Increase the volume of food to make it appear larger than it is.

This strategy focuses on increasing the amount of space food takes up without actually increasing the amount of food on the plate. Shredding, whipping and chopping up a portion of food creates space between all the pieces and makes the portion appear larger.

Density Geometric Visual

Option A and Option B contain the same amount of chicken in the example below. We’ve implemented this strategy by shredding the chicken in Option B to convince the brain there is more food present. Notice the drastic difference below. Shredded chicken can be used in numerous meals such as salads, burrito bowls, sandwiches, wraps and grain bowls.

Density Chicken

Strategy 3 – Pieces

Increase the number of pieces on your plate.

Studies have found that dividing a fixed portion into more pieces increases the perceived portion size. Therefore, cutting food into pieces can help convince your brain you’re eating more food which allows you to reduce portion sizes while increasing satisfaction.

Number Pieces Geometric Visual

This can be advantageously applied simply by cutting up food into pieces before putting it on the plate. Below are three single servings of tofu, each prepared with a varying number of pieces. Our brains are likely to perceive Option A as being the smallest amount of food and Option C as being the largest despite all options being the same amount.

Number Pieces Tofu

Strategy 4 – Surface Area

Increase the visible surface area.

Generally, we have a bird’s eye view of our plate as it is placed in front of us on a table requiring us to look down at it. The more surface area visible from a bird’s eye view, the larger the portion appears to be. This strategy can be applied directly to foods with definite shapes or applied to dishware for amorphous foods.

Surface Area Geometric Visual

For foods with definite shapes make them thinner, longer and wider. An example of this is pounded out chicken breast. Option A and Option B contain the same amount of chicken. Option B has been pounded out to a ½” thickness with a meat mallet to reveal more visible surface area and make it appear larger than Option A.

Surface Area Pounded Chicken

For amorphous foods like soups, dips, salads, grain bowls, pasta dishes and rice dishes use short and wide dishware/bowls. Chicken Tortilla Soup is used in the example below. Option A and Option B contain the same amount of soup. Option A is served in a traditional soup bowl which is tall and narrow. Option B is served in a traditional pasta bowl (also known as a low bowl) which is short and wide. Notice the large difference in surface area. Despite both bowls containing the same amount of soup, Option B appears to be a larger portion which will convince your brain that Option B is more satisfactory than Option A.

Surface Area Soup


Re-teaching the brain to recognize healthy portion sizes addresses the actual problem. It also makes portion control easier because it uses specific strategies and techniques to control portions and promote satisfaction instead of relying solely on willpower. Stop spending weeks or months feeling unsatisfied, deprived and guilty.

Apply these simple yet effective strategies to daily meals in a matter of minutes. Make small changes every week and use these strategies to help your brain feel full and satisfied with healthier amounts of food. Over time you will no longer need to use portion control strategies such as these because your brain will adjust to what healthy portion sizes actually look like.

For more ideas and specific ways to apply these portion control strategies in your day-to-day life grab a free copy of this Easy Portion Control Mini Guide.

Rachel Maher

Founder of Zested Lemon, Rachel helps busy people get healthy and make it a habit with delicious and nutritious food. She believes a healthy lifestyle that is enjoyable and motivating (versus stressful and frustrating) is attainable by anyone with the right tools and knowledge. Rachel is a CPA and is certified in the Culinary Arts from Escoffier Online International Culinary Academy. She is a world traveler having visited over 30 different countries. Creating, learning, happy hour, and dogs are some of the things that make Rachel happy. One day she hopes to meet Anthony Bourdain because she thinks he has a fascinating outlook on life.