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 necessarily 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 to Portion Control

Most people think the problem is simply overeating 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.

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 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.

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.

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How to Trick Your Brain to Make You Feel Full (Without Overeating)

Using visual cues, you can reverse portion distortion and retrain the brain to be able to recognize healthy portion sizes as being satisfactory and filling.

How? Simply 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.

Strategy 1: 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. This is because when the overall volume of the meal increases, it diminishes the visual impact of a small portion of one particular food.

Filler Ingredients Geometric Visual

Because pasta is one of the largest pain points when it comes to portion control, we’re using it in the example below. 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 are used as Filler Ingredients in Option B.

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

In Option B, your brain doesn’t recognize the pasta as a small portion because your attention is on the full bowl of food versus focusing on one specific ingredient. The Filler Ingredients on Option B convinces 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: 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 many meals such as salads, burrito bowls, sandwiches, wraps, and grain bowls.

Density Chicken

Strategy 3: Increase the number of pieces on your plate

Studies have found that dividing a fixed portion into more pieces increases the perceived portion size.

Cutting food into pieces helps to convince your brain you’re eating more food. This 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: Increase the visible surface area of food

Generally, we have a bird’s eye view of our plate on a table. The more surface area visible from a bird’s eye view, the larger the portion appears to be. You can apply this strategy directly to foods with definite shapes or 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. This way, it reveals a more visible surface area and appears 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.

We use Chicken Tortilla Soup in the example below. Option A and Option B contain the same amount of soup. However, Option A is in a traditional soup bowl that is tall and narrow. Meanwhile, Option B is in a traditional pasta bowl (also known as a low bowl), which is short and wide.

Notice the significant difference in surface area. Despite both bowls containing the same amount of soup, Option B appears to be a larger portion. This convinces your brain that Option B is more satisfactory than Option A.

Surface Area Soup

Conclusion

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. Therefore, you no longer have to rely solely on willpower. And you can stop spending weeks or months feeling unsatisfied, deprived, and guilty.

Apply these simple yet effective strategies for 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.

Rachel Maher
Author

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.