This week the charity British Nutrition Foundation (BNF), which aims to make nutrition science accessible to all, published a guide to portion sizes. Their aim is to help people avoid eating too much without realising. Their point is that many of us eat too much, and that can be partly through ignorance of what constitutes a portion of different foods.
Using your fingers, thumbs and palms to gauge amounts
The BNF guide translates portion sizes from grams to easy visual measures. So rather than weighing your food to work out how much you should have, their suggestion is to use your hand (nice and simple) to estimate how much a portion should be. A portion of baked potato they say should be the size of your fist and your favourite cheese should be the size of two thumbs. The beauty of this is simplicity and the fact you don’t need equipment to do the measuring. If this appeals to you, here is the link to their leaflets…
Not everyone is happy
But already some eminent dietitians have tweeted objections on the basis that we all need different amounts of food based on our biology and activity levels, and that using an external guide to portion size takes people away from eating in tune with their body. I agree with these objections, but I also support anything that makes portion size estimation easier. For me, as the late great John Lennon said, “Whatever gets you through the night (or in this case estimating meal size) ‘salright”.
My real objection to two-thumbs-worth of cheese
I totally agree that restaurant and shop portion sizes can’t possibly be right for all of us, so we need a way of judging how much to eat for ourselves. But back in 2011 when I began my quest to lose weight without giving up my favourite foods, the “two-thumbs” or in those days “matchbox-sized” rule simply freaked me out. I really really love cheese, and the matchbox size I was eating back then was what Bryant and May call “Extra long” … several times what was intended in the matchbox advice. So I totally sympathise with anyone whose reaction to the two-thumbs rule is to panic and ignore the advice altogether.
If this is what you’re like with cheese-sizing, you may be pleased to learn that I did work out an alternative way of approaching portion sizes, which ended up reducing them. Spoiler alert: I now eat cheese about the size of a regular matchbox. But I didn’t achieve this by following how much people were telling me how much to eat. I did it using the steps I’ve set out below and the key thing to being able to do this was to tackle the fear (yes) that less-cheese triggered. I was scared of hunger, deprivation and of missing out on the loveliness of the cheese that I wasn’t having. First World problems all of them, but they were stopping me eating less.
How to discover the portion sizes your body needs
Here are the simple steps I used that you can experiment with. Still simple and visual, like the BNF’s thumbs, fists and fingers, but very individually tailored and closely linked with your body’s natural hunger and fullness. Indeed it is part of the process of learning how to listen to those signals if you’ve been ignoring them.
- Start where you are now with the foods you currently love and the portion sizes you’ve got used to eating.
- Reduce your portion size in manageable steps. Either, eat each meal tuning in to how full you are feeling with each successive bite, using my Appetite Pendulum (below) and stop when you feel “just full” (+3). Or if you prefer, take a quarter off your plate at the largest meal of the day. For now it doesn’t matter which quarter you remove because you are going to be learning about amounts your body actually needs. I’d suggest removing your least favourite quarter of the meal, to minimise any sense of deprivation. As soon as you stop eating each meal go and do something away from food to prevent you from going back for more.
- Repeat this every day. Just one quarter off that biggest meal, so that every day you’re having ¾ of what you used to have every day at that meal. And call how your gut feels at the end of your ¾ meal “just full”. You’re now re-calibrating your gut awareness along with your meal size.
- Note that whatever you feel at the end of your ¾ size meal is NOT physical hunger. If you feel something you’ve always thought of as hunger, re-name it as “anxiety” or “agitation”. You may find that you don’t like how you feel at the end of the ¾ size meal, but remind yourself that the feeling won’t last and that by learning to eat less you can lose weight without giving up your favourite foods. Because of how our fullness signals work, you’re likely to feel more satisfied half an hour from now than you do when you just finish eating.
- Adjust sizes of any other meals to get you to “just full”, now you know what that feels like.
- Notice what happens to your energy levels, sense of feeling in control and your weight over the coming weeks.
- Once you’re finding the ¾ meal size easy, you can make another downward adjustment if you like to all your meals. Perhaps reduce what is now “normal” size by a quarter, or just a few spoonfuls.
- Whenever you feel anxious, use an anxiety-reduction strategy available in my free download “Anxiety and How to Manage It” on theappetitedoctor.co.uk website
For more advice, see the 12 tips on how to reduce your meal size in chapter 4 of my book “How to Retrain Your Appetite: Lose weight eating all your favourite foods”
Let me know how you find reducing your meal size by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Or if you’re happy to share what you’re learning with other people, post what you’re noticing on social media and please tag me so I can see what you’re discovering, via any of these: