Nutrition: Ditch the diet, the big plates and the extra calories

Even reducing the size of plates and bowls can help us to consume less calories and drop stubborn pounds, says dietitian Paula Mee

In a short few years our tableware and crockery has increased in size so quickly that many dinner plates now need to be handwashed. Photograph: Thinkstock

In a short few years our tableware and crockery has increased in size so quickly that many dinner plates now need to be handwashed. Photograph: Thinkstock

 

‘It’s so frustrating when you go on a diet and your partner ends up losing twice as much weight as you do,” wailed a woman at the adjacent coffee table. “He wasn’t even trying. All he did was eat what I was eating. I was the one who wrote up the meal plan and did the blooming shopping and cooking and yet he shed a stone in weight before I even reached the 7lb mark.”

It made me think of Brian Wansink’s book Why We Eat More Than We Think. He believes the biggest food influence in your life is the nutritional gatekeeper. By that he means the person in your household who does most of the food shopping and meal preparation.

Regardless of whether they can cook well or not, they have an enormous influence on the family’s nutrition. They can shape what food is eaten inside and even outside the home.

They decide what goes into the trolley, what – if any – cookbooks and recipes are used, what’s in the lunchbox and what family restaurants are frequented.

His research confirmed that gatekeepers who were good cooks appeared to help their families eat healthily. They did this by consistently offering a varied menu. Wansink explains that variety can “expand our tastes beyond the standard fatty, salty, sweet foods for which we have a natural hankering”.

A broad variety of foods is not only pleasurable but allows family members to stretch their food horizons. But if you don’t have the time to invest in cooking lessons and you are not a great cook, there are ways you can improve the nutrition at home, according to Wansink.

Create more diverse meals by trying ethnic recipes, substituting different vegetables and spices in favourite meals, bringing the younger members of the family shopping and allowing them choose healthy new foods, or visiting authentic ethnic restaurants.

As the gatekeeper in the cafe explained, there were a number of things tipping the needle on the weighing scales in the wrong direction. She was sitting for most of the day at work. Sometimes she skipped breakfast, even though she made the kids eat porridge. She had a light lunch at the desk but “ended up eating far more than was necessary later on in the evening”.

She unintentionally nibbled her way through some sweet reward while absorbed in TV once the kids went to bed. Going on and off her diets had led her nowhere.

Reduce

A better idea is to ditch the diet and reduce the “normal” portion sizes at meals slightly, substituting healthier foods for the less healthy if necessary. There’s no need to make drastic, unsustainable changes. Studies confirm that we routinely eat about the same amount or volume of food every day, and even at each meal.

The problem arises when a person thinks they are eating less than their typical volume of food. They then believe they are hungry. If they think they eat more, they believe themselves to be full. In other words, volume tops calories in studies. Our stomachs don’t count calories and they don’t care about calories.

In a short few years our tableware and crockery has increased in size so quickly that many dinner plates now need to be handwashed. They are too big for our dishwashers.

Adequate portions of food seem small and miserable on large plates and bowls. Choosing a dinner plate that is 10 inches instead of 12 inches and a shallow dessert or cereal bowl that is 6 inches instead of 8 inches can help make our servings appear generous and the volume adequate. Yet we may end up eating about 20 per cent less at each meal. Vegetables and salads can be used to fill the gaps on your plate too, and won’t add enormously to the calorie count.

There are no long-term studies published that determine the impact of portion size on weight management but there are short-term studies showing that controlling portion sizes helps limit calorie intake, particularly when eating high-calorie foods.

Normal serving

How many of us look at the food on offer and know what a normal serving is? Are we conditioned to think that a serving of pasta is an entire plateful because it’s so usual to see that on TV ads or to be served it when eating in restaurants?

In one study, researchers gave men and women an afternoon snack of crisps that were packaged in bags that looked the same, except that they increased progressively in size (from 28g to 170g). For men and women the snack intake increased significantly as the package size increased. Notably, when dinner was served several hours later, participants did not adjust their intakes to compensate for the differences in snack intake.

Some of the portions we frequently get wrong include breakfast cereals, pasta, rice, potatoes, meat, butter and oils. In the case of breakfast cereals, the typical portion is often at least twice the recommended serving size.

In the same way, if you are in the habit of pouring your oils liberally when cooking or making salad dressings, it’s very easy to consume significantly more than if you measure it out with a spoon.

If you are watching your waistline, it is really worthwhile, as a once-off exercise, to weigh out the recommended portion of a range of everyday foods and compare them to what you might typically consume.

In term of supersized packages of treats, my suggestion is don’t buy them. Try to buy single-serve portions where possible.

Overfeeding

We live in a world that is essentially overfeeding us. Strategies to help us to feel satisfied after less are needed if we can’t make the time to increase our activity or exercise levels. Unfortunately, nothing can be done about the fact that men have more muscle mass than women and consequently they will lose more weight when eating the same number of calories.

Paula Mee is a dietitian and a member of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute. Email paula@paulamee.com; tweet @paula_mee

 

Tips that will change your life

Avoid offers in supermarkets that encourage you to buy larger amounts of food than you need; for example, “buy one, get one free” offers or supersized packs.

Measure starchy foods such as pasta, rice and potatoes before you cook them. You could weigh them or always use the same cup to measure out your portion. Check whether the suggested portion on packets of dry food packet is for the product before or after cooking.

If you are cooking for more than one meal, get the extra food ready for storing before you start eating so you won’t go back for seconds.

Eat slowly and enjoy the taste of your food. That way you will have time to become aware of how full you are. Aim to feel comfortably full and not stuffed, and don’t be afraid to leave unwanted food on the plate.

Where possible, control your own portions and food choices. Eat what is right for you not because there is food available or you think it will keep other people happy. There is no one portion size that suits everyone. Children need smaller portions than adults, males often need larger portions than females and a tall, young, active man will need larger portions than a tall, inactive older man. Try to take this into account when planning, cooking and serving meals for others.

Some handy portion sizes

One portion equals: Cooked vegetables: 1 cup of carrots/parsnips/broccoli/celery/green beans/cabbage

Salad: 1 cup of lettuce/tomato/cucumber/onion/peppers/ scallions/bean sprouts

Fruit: 1 medium apple/pear/peach, 2 small mandarins, 2 small kiwis, 10 grapes

Cooked rice, pasta, quinoa, cous cous: 1 cup full

Cereals: 1 cup of raw porridge oats, 1 cup of muesli, 1 cup of cereal flakes

Meat, poultry, fish: the palm of your hand (the width and depth of your palm without fingers and thumb)

Cooked beans/peas/lentils: 1 cup Cheese: a small matchbox (1 ounce/approximately 28g)

Peanut butter, jam, marmalade or honey: 5ml teaspoon

Fat spread: use the portions of butter or spread found in restaurants as your guide. One pat is more than enough to do one slice of bread – try to make it do for two.

Where cups are referred to, a 200ml disposable plastic cup was used

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