Portion Perfection

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It’s a mantra repeated, in one form or another, by countless authorities on obesity and weight loss: Serve up smaller portions.

Despite the seeming simplicity of this rule, it faces many obstacles in our daily lives. These may include tight schedules that lead to rushed meals, cooking habits that emphasize large quantities to maximize leftovers, or a simple lack of awareness regarding what constitutes an adequate serving size. According to an article earlier this month in the Los Angeles Times, several companies, many of them startups, are betting that portion-size reminders will make a difference in people’s behavior — or at least that consumers will believe such reminders can make a difference. The article profiles a company called Precise Portions, which sells dinner plates on which space is designated for vegetables, starches, and proteins. One design labels these areas overtly, while another features a discreet “vine design” that could be seen as purely decorative by unsuspecting guests. Other products include bowls and drinking glasses marked with portion sizes for various items.

There is some evidence to suggest that people often follow visual cues when deciding how much to eat. As noted in an article here at DiabetesSelfManagement.com,What Really Determines What We Eat,” controlled studies have determined that people tend to take a larger helping of a snack when it is presented in a larger serving bowl. They also tend to eat more popcorn when it is given to them in a larger container — even if it tastes terrible, by their own admission. And if a bowl of soup is constantly replenished automatically so that its level never goes down, people will eat significantly more soup than if they are eating from a normal bowl and are free to refill the bowl whenever they please. It should not be surprising, then, that a simple tactic such as cordoning off areas of a plate could be similarly effective.

But portion-denoting plates and bowls also face limitations. One may simply be eating habits: If we are accustomed to refilling our cereal bowl when we want more, the mark on the side of the bowl may not stop us. Another possibility is that given modern lifestyles, the daunting task of cooking a meal with abundant vegetables and separate starches and proteins will prove discouraging and lead to unused plates in favor of quick-to-prepare meals and restaurant take-out. The discipline required to consistently cook for portioned plates, one could argue, dwarfs the discipline required to limit portion sizes.

What do you think — have you tried tricks or gimmicks to limit or, in the case of vegetables, increase the sizes of portions you consume? Have you found physical food constraints or other methods — such as self-talk or paying attention to your body’s physical cues — to be more effective in controlling how much you eat? Would you pay for plates designed to limit portion sizes? Leave a comment below!

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