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In a nutshell:
Eating too much healthy food is unhealthy
Most portion sizes are too big
Learn to reset how much you eat
By now you have hopefully read all the material on how to eat healthy. The next step is to adjust your portion size to your caloric needs. Unfortunately over the years the commercialization of the food industry has lead to increasing portion sizes. In contrast our life has become more automated and sedentary. So, we have ended up eating more and burning fewer calories. Let's discuss how to take charge of your portion size and eat what you need rather than what you are served.
To better understand portion size, we are going to briefly explain what constitutes your caloric needs:
1. Resting Energy Expenditure (REE): the energy you need for basic body function regardless of what you are doing.
2. Activity level: any extra energy your body expends to perform your daily activities.
REE: This is the energy our organs spend to keep us alive and functioning. Our brain, heart, lungs, digestive system, immune system and many other body organs all need energy to perform their basic functions. The REE is therefore dependent on the sex, age and weight of each person. It is a constant that does not change significantly from day to day. The table below shows a rough estimate on how to calculate your REE:
Activity level, on the other hand, is very dependent on what we are doing and can change from day to day. Let's assume that you live life more or less the same day to day. You may have a few days that you are unusually more active and a few days that you just lay on the couch and watch TV all day, but overall your activity does not change significantly over time. So it would be safe to take a few days of your average life as a sample to calculate your caloric needs from activity. You can then add this to your REE to calculate your average daily caloric expenditure and hence calculate how much you need to eat.
TOTAL CALORIES: REE + ACTIVITY LEVEL
One of the best ways to do this without ever having to do any math is to use one of the many on-line food diary programs. Our personal favorite is MyFitnessPal. We like this app for many reasons:
It uses your age, sex, weight and activity level to accurately measure your daily caloric expenditure.
It connects with many smart watches to automatically download your activity.
It also has an extensive list of foods, both homemade and from restaurants.
It is a friendly app that you can download on your computer or smart devices.
Now let us be clear about one thing: calorie counting is only meant to be done for a short period of time, giving you an objective way of adjusting your portion size. Once you track your calories for 2-4 weeks, you will naturally learn your new, and most likely smaller, portion sizes. You can then stop all food calorie tracking and depend on your hunger and visual cues to eat healthy portions. In fact, we are against long term calorie counting. Remember, eating should be a fun part of your day and not another source of stress. So add of those calories religiously for 2-4 weeks and then never do it again. If you ever change your lifestyle significantly (you are signing up for the next Ironman or become significantly less active), you can then come back and use the app to make appropriate adjustments.
Why can't I just use my hunger to track my portion size?
Short answer: because you have spoiled your hunger by feeding it more than what it needs; until you retrain it you cannot trust it. Hunger is a very powerful force. Physiologically it is meant to make sure you take in enough calories to survive and function well. Hunger is controlled by many factors with some being physiologic and some behavioral.
Physiologic: Hunger is controlled by the brain. The brain in turn depends on hormonal signals from muscles, the digestive system, and fat deposits to determine your current state of energy stores. Another major factor in hunger is how stretched or empty the stomach is. Unfortunately, for most of us, the stomach has stretched over time due to over eating and unnecessarily large portion sizes. So, our stomach may be sending the wrong signal. Its physical capacity has surpassed the physiological capacity. This is one of the main reasons we want you to track your calories for at least few weeks. The good news is that the stomach is quite elastic, so after reducing your portion size for a few weeks, your stomach will shrink and once again you can trust it to be a honest partner in your new healthy life. This is when you can stop measuring your meals.
Behavioral: This is the hard part. You are up against a multibillion dollar food advertising giant that is always telling you to eat more and get the bigger size. Stick with your caloric count and soon you will be able to stand up to this giant force and know when to stop. Resisting temptation may be hard at the beginning, but if you truly stick with your portion size as dictated by your caloric need, soon you won't even have the appetite or physical space for those extra large portions.
Here are some tips to help you start eating smaller portions:
At the beginning you may feel hungry with smaller portion sizes due to a stretched stomach, so drink a glass of water before or after you eat to fill that space. This also helps with digestion.
Eat your food slowly. It takes time for the appetite hormones to detect presence of food in your stomach and signal the brain to shut down your hunger. So take a few seconds between each bite and a short break after a few bites. Try to enjoy the flavors of the food you just cooked.
Eat a small snack in between meals. This prevents those starving moments that lead to bad food choices and overeating. Try to get to your meals not feeling too hungry.
Always include healthy proteins and fats in your meals. These macronutrients are more filling than carbohydrates.
If you still feel hungry after you have eaten your appropriate portion size, just get up and go do something for a few minutes. More likely than not, your hunger will dissipate as your brain processes all the satiety hormones released from your digestive system.
A Starter Guide to Portion Size and Dietary Change:
In the slides below, we provide a basic 8-week plan with step-by-step instructions on how to gradually adjust your portion size and change your diet. We recommend that you use a calorie counting app or website for this period (like MyFitnessPal). You may also use a nutritionist. If you are desiring more help with this lifestyle change, you can email us for private consulting sessions to assist you with this process.
Resting energy expenditure is dependent on weight (kg), sex and age (years).
Hunger is controlled by both physiologic and behavioral factors.
Weeks 1 and 2:
No calorie counting here
Just focus on improving the quality of your food
Focus on homemade healthy and unprocessed foods
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