Portion sizes are always a popular topic in my office. After clients and I have established that they could benefit from getting more or less of a type of food or nutrient, the next question is always: but how much do I need?
There are several guidelines and rule books out there when it comes to portion sizes. For example, Living Well With Canada's Food Guide provides several examples of "appropriate" portion sizes for individuals based on sex and age. Other guides encourage you to determine portion sizes by using your hands and fists as a reference. While many people feel this type of guide helpful, there are several ways in which they are flawed.
Your body's unique needs are not factored in
Blankly stating that two women of a similar age require the same amount of food is oversimplifying human biology. It does not consider different metabolisms, illnesses, body sizes, activity levels, eating patterns, etc. When it comes to nutrition, there is NO one size fits all.
Your needs are constantly changing
One morning, you may feel satisfied with a piece of toast with peanut butter. The next, you may eat two bowls of cereal, a banana and some yogurt... and still feel hungry. What is "appropriate" one day might not be the next. Our needs may change depending on our activity level, our emotional state, our level of fatigue, etc.
Science can't make up it's mind, anyways
Science is very murky territory where nothing is set in stone and where there are no absolutes. Saying that 3/4 cup of yogurt is the exact amount that will benefit you most is well... kind of ridiculous. In the end, we have no idea what the "perfect" diet is. Recommendations are simply built on things we kind of know and hope are true.
If not specific portion sizes, then what?
At this point, you may be wondering how the heck you'll know how much to eat if you can't rely on guidelines. After all, we see this type of messaging everywhere (including some healthcare professional's offices), and many of us have embraced it as being something positive.
However, there is a better way. The technique I teach my clients lets them figure out exactly how much they need from meal to meal. They do not need to measure or weigh any foods. They don't need to make any calculations based on their age, sex, weight or height. In fact, there is no obsessing over numbers at all!
So what is this magical technique, you ask?
It's simple: LISTEN TO YOUR BODY.
Our body is a magical temple filled with wisdom
Okay, so that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but our body really is very wise. Tuning into our hunger and fullness cues can be one of the most powerful tools when trying to establish how much to eat. When we are physically hungry and feel our stomach rumble, it is a sign that our body requires fuel. When we feel full and satisfied, it often means we have eaten enough.
Although this sounds pretty simple, it can be very hard to put into practice. When we focus on following specific portion sizes, we often neglect our eating cues. Reconnecting with them can take time and practice. Heck, you may not even experience hunger cues at all at this point in time. If you are on diet after diet where hunger is ignored, your body eventually understands that sending these signals is useless, and saves itself the trouble. To help reboot your hunger cues, ensure that you are eating regular meals and snacks. In general, the body can't go more than 4-5 hours without eating. You might also want to focus on other signs that your body may be hungry, like having a hard time concentrating, feeling sluggish, thinking a lot about food, etc.
The journey to embracing our hunger and fullness cues can be a challenging one. However, for most people, it is the best way to determine our body's needs, to reduce cravings and to get the most satisfaction out of food!