Dr. Doni Wilson, N.D. explains why so many of us eat too much, how overeating harms your health, and how to determine the ideal food portion size for your body.
If you are trying to attain your ideal weight, you may have the heard of the concept of “portion control.” Seems logical: Eat less, lose weight. However, I believe there may be some misunderstanding about what it means and why it is important. Most people think it means simply restricting the number of calories you ingest – something commonly associated with dieting. But really:
“Portion control” is when the amount of food you eat at meals is easy for your body to handle.
Your body is beautifully designed to extract vital nutrients from the foods you eat, and eliminate what it does not need. However, eating portions that are too large for your body to handle makes it difficult for your digestive system to do its job. And when overeating becomes a habit, it can take a toll on our overall health.
I believe portion control is a major factor not only in weight management, but in overall wellness. Yet, as fundamental as it is, so many people struggle with it every day. The problem is, various psychological and social factors can cause many of us to eat too much at meal times. You may not even be aware of how these triggers are responsible for your continual struggle with weight gain and health issues. That’s why I wanted to dedicate an entire article to this subject.
In this article, we’ll look at:
- 7 Reasons Why We Eat Too Much at Meals
- The Connection Between Stress and Food
- Health Problems Caused by Eating Large Meals
- 7 Steps to Finding the Perfect Food Portion Size
- Supplements to Help You Attain Healthy Portion Control
7 Reasons Why We Eat Too Much at Meals
First, I want to assure you that this article is not about shaming. Guilt and shame will only make overeating more challenging, as we’ll see when we look at stress in a future article that I’m planning. Rather, let’s look logically at what’s really causing our tendency to eat more than our bodies can handle. Some of the most common reasons are:
- As children, we were trained to eat everything on our plate.
- We use large plates, and fill them up.
- When we eat out, we are served huge portions, multiple courses, or second helpings.
- We get hungry, but wait too long before eating.
- We often eat too quickly, such as when we’re in a hurry to get back to work.
- We eat while we’re doing something else (i.e. we don’t pay attention to the act of eating).
- We don’t realize we are full, so we keep eating.
The first three are fairly self-explanatory. Reasons 4-6 are unfortunate symptoms of our modern age, and tend to work together. If you wait too long to eat, for example, you are more likely to eat too quickly – and too much – because you feel like you’re “starving.”
Reason 7 deserves a bit of explanation. Many people overeat for the simple reason that they don’t know they are full. This is because:
It takes at least 20 minutes for your stomach to “tell” your brain it is full.
Thus, eating slowly, consciously, and at regular intervals – before you feel ravenous – is one of the best ways to ensure your brain has a chance to catch up with your stomach. That way, your brain will tell you you’ve had enough, and you won’t eat more than your body needs.
The Connection Between Stress and Food
Stress is a double-edged sword, especially when talking about food:
- When you feel stressed, you may want to eat more (especially carbs).
- When you eat a lot, your body gets stressed, as it struggles to digest the food properly or maintain stable blood sugar levels.
Even when we are healthy, our bodies find it hard to cope with large meals. And when we are stressed, our bodies find it even more difficult to process large meals. Eating too much can result in poor digestion, fewer available nutrients, and more undigested food that then ends up over-feeding gut bacteria. Over time, this can lead to a vicious cycle of intestinal permeability and inflammation from the gut to the rest of your body – including your brain (the “Gut-Brain Axis”). Thus, our urge to overeat (or comfort eat) when we are stressed ends up causing more stress – which can cause yet more overeating, and yet more stress.
Most people do not realize how much stress overeating is putting on their bodies every single day. To understand how this happens, imagine you are walking down a street, carrying a pile of laundry. The more you walk, the more hunched over you become. But somehow, you continue. You start sweating and breathing harder, but you keep trudging along. Then, finally, you collapse.
This is what happens in your body when you overtax it with too much food to process. It tries to do its best job for you. It seems to be able to handle a big workload. But when everything becomes too much for it, the body struggles and improvises. Eventually, it gives out. And that is when a health crisis happens.
I’m not trying to scare you, but simply to make a point:
Chronic overeating and stress will eventually overwhelm your body and lead to serious health issues.
Health Problems Caused by Eating Large Meals
Eating too much at a single sitting can cause temporary discomfort, but chronically eating large portions can cause long-term health issues, including:
- Dysbiosis (imbalanced bacteria in the gut)
- Leaky gut
- Insulin resistance
- Elevated cholesterol
- Weight gain
- Stress on your liver
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Inflammation and pain throughout your body
- Brain fog
“Dysbiosis” is when the bacteria in our gut gets out of balance, causing digestive symptoms such as gas and bloating. When dysbiosis becomes a chronic issue, it can lead to intestinal permeability, otherwise known as “leaky gut.” Leaky gut subsequently leads to food reactions and inflammation, which can then spread anywhere in your body. When that happens, it can trigger many non-digestive symptoms, like headaches, anxiety, rashes, joint pain, and sinus congestion.
Leaky gut can also cause your insulin to become less effective in processing carbohydrates that are absorbed from your digestion. This can lead to elevated blood sugar, higher cholesterol, weight gain, and yet more inflammation. Poor insulin response, in turn, puts excess strain on your liver, as it tries to deal with the excess blood sugar and make up for where the pancreas (which produces insulin) and insulin receptors are falling short. If you already have leaky gut and eat large quantities of carbs at one sitting, it makes things even more overwhelming for your liver. In the long term, all this strain can lead to a dangerous condition called NASH (non-alcoholic steatohepatitis) or “fatty liver.”
7 Steps to Finding the Perfect Food Portion Size
One of the best ways to keep your body from becoming stressed is to feed it the way it wants to be fed. This process is not a matter of developing “will power” or dieting, but of finding out how your body is best able to manage food. Instead of focusing on what your brain thinks it wants, we need to learn how to listen to what our body tells us it wants.
Many people believe they will feel like they are starving if they eat less. This may be the case in the beginning, but your body will recalibrate. The best rule of thumb is to make gradual adjustments over time. To help you do that, I have created these seven steps for finding the perfect portion size for your body. Do not attempt to do all seven steps at once; rather, master step one before moving on to step two, and so on:
- EAT FROM A PLATE. At the start of your meal, put your entire meal onto a single plate (or in a bowl), so you can see exactly how much you’re eating. Don’t eat out of containers, wrappers, cartons or serving dishes.
- STICK TO WHAT’S ON THE PLATE. Learn to stick to what you’ve put on the plate. No matter what, resist going back for more.
- LEAVE ONE BITE. As you get near the end of your meal, leave ONE bite on your plate. You could leave it for another meal, give it to someone else, or throw it out.
- SWITCH TO A SALAD PLATE. Instead of using a large dinner plate for your meals, use a smaller salad plate, continuing to follow steps 1-3. In this way, you will probably eat about half as much as you did when you used the dinner plate. If, after 20 minutes, you still feel hungry, put half of the remaining food on your salad plate and eat it. Waiting that 20 minutes gives your body a chance to digest some of the food, making it easier for it to handle the next portion.
- BALANCE PROTEIN, FAT, AND CARBS ON YOUR PLATE. Next, take a good look at WHAT you’re eating. If, for example, your meal is mainly carbs, swap out some of those carbs for protein and/or healthy fats. For help with this, see my past articles, “Protein Powder: A Beginner’s Guide” and “Why Eating “Good” Fat Keeps You Slim, Happy, and Healthy.”
- EAT EVERY 3-4 HOURS. Once you get to a point where you feel full when you eat only what is on your salad plate, eat at regular intervals of 3-4 hours – not the 6-8 hours to which so many of us are accustomed. Eating half as much, twice as frequently, is a far more effective way to digest food than eating three big meals a day, spaced out by many hours.
- NOTICE AND ADJUST. Pay attention to how your body responds to the changing amounts of food and intervals between meal times. Adjust the amount of food at each meal based on what you observe. Keep in mind that everyone is different. You may need to add or subtract a few bites of food until you find what feels best for your body and digestion. Remember also that your body’s needs can change over time, and will vary according to activity levels.
Supplements to Help You Attain Healthy Portion Control
Some of my patients find certain supplements* help as they work to attain the right meal portion sizes for their bodies. Some of the products that have helped the most include:
- Digestive enzymes – When your digestive system is overtaxed or unhealthy, good digestive enzymes can help your body digest food more thoroughly, enabling your body to utilize nutrients more effectively. You can find some excellent digestive enzymes in my online shop.
- Leaky gut healing powder – If you have been diagnosed with leaky gut (or suspect you have it), my own brand of leaky gut healing powder contains l-glutamine, deglycyrrhizinated licorice, and aloe vera to help your digestive system heal from stress. You can find my leaky gut healing powder in my online shop.
- Protein powder – A good protein powder added to shakes, smoothies, or soups can help boost your proteins when you’re trying to shift away from carb-heavy meals. Protein shakes can also be used as small meals. I have a selection of delicious protein shakes in my online shop, too.
- Stress Remedy Program – If you feel the need for guided support, you might wish to consider one of my Stress Remedy programs. These step-by-step programs (7 or 21 days) can help kick-start the dietary changes you want to make, as well as address leaky gut issues.
The topic of portion control is more often associated with dieting, rather than with good health. Because of this, I want to stress that my intention in writing this article is NOT to encourage crash diets or rapid weight loss. Rather, I want to help you understand how portion control allows your body to function optimally, so you feel good and be healthy. If any of the strategies I have suggested cause you to lose weight too quickly or feel unwell, I urge you to consult a qualified health professional who can guide you as you work towards finding your ideal portion size.
I hope this article has helped you learn that you can break free from the challenges of portion control, and put your health back on track. But success can only happen if you come to accept your body, rather than rejecting it because you believe you are overweight or unattractive. Throughout my years as a naturopathic doctor, I have watched my patients start to accept their bodies when they learn more about their individual physiology, and develop a deeper understanding about what their bodies actually need. This way, rather than continuously obsessing about losing weight, they learn how to feed their bodies in ways that support their health – which ultimately helps them attain their ideal weight. If there is one thing I would like you to take away from this article, it’s this:
Portion control isn’t about needing to be slim, or about punishing yourself for overeating.
It is about giving your body what it needs to perform its best – for YOU.
If you have done your best to reach these goals on your own, but now feel you could benefit from one-on-one support, you might wish to consider my Leaky Gut and Digestive Solutions Package. This treatment package includes testing to find out which specific foods are causing internal inflammation, and gives you an individualized plan for healing leaky gut and optimizing blood sugar levels.
Thanks for reading. To stay on top of all my latest health articles, just sign up for my Weekly Wellness Wisdom newsletter. And, if you’re curious to discover how stress may be affecting your health, you might enjoy my short online quiz. As my gift to you for signing up, I will also send you my 35-page eBook, “A Guide to Adrenal Recovery.”
28th April 2017
*Please keep in mind that any and all supplements—nutrients, herbs, enzymes, or other—should be used with caution. My recommendation is that you seek the care of a naturopathic doctor (with a doctorate degree from a federally-accredited program) and that you have a primary care physician or practitioner whom you can contact to help you with individual dosing and protocols. If you ever experience negative symptoms after taking a product, stop taking it immediately and contact your doctor right away.