Why Portion Control Is the Wrong Goal for Smart Eating

A hearty feast.
A hearty feast.
Eat until you’re satisfied. Photo: Rumman Amin/Unsplash

One goal I encourage for all my clients is to feel deeply satisfied after each meal. I am a nutritionist, so that may seem surprising — aren’t I supposed to enforce meager portions? Not exactly. It turns out that being satisfied after each meal helps ensure your body is getting the nutrients it needs and helps you avoid reaching for unhealthy foods when you get too hungry later.

Whether you’re trying to manage your weight or autoimmunity or improve your cardiometabolic parameters (in the unlucky case that heart disease and metabolic dysfunction have joined forces to kill you), listening to your body’s hunger and fullness cues and eating until you’re satisfied, happy, and relaxed after each meal is your aim. In fact, this is the new “healthy eating.”

Of course, there are a few caveats, which I will address here.

Eat real foods

If you roll your eyes at this one, I’m sorry, but we’re sticking with it. There are certain truths in nutrition that the professionals can all agree on, and this is one of them — maybe the only one. You must eat real foods.

Meats, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, fruits and their fats, vegetables of all shapes and sizes, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains (if you can stomach them) can all be included under this umbrella.

For the most part, these foods will require preparation before cooking. If you want to mix some together, a good old-fashioned recipe book will serve you well.

There are some junk versions of real foods that should be avoided, not just because they lack nutrients and contain lots of energy, but also because they can wreak havoc on your blood sugar, are addictive, and may also contain chemicals that play a part in ruining your efforts to be healthy. The three I most dislike provide the backbone to most junk foods.

Balance your blood sugar

This is critical if you’re going to successfully move away from those things, like snacking, that are scuppering your plans for a healthy diet. If we’re honest with ourselves, what we snack on is very often processed junk foods. A snack may be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, seemingly something “healthy,” like a nut cereal bar, but actually it’s just a vehicle for sugar in four or five different forms. The effect of a seemingly inert snack is that your blood sugar skyrockets in what we colloquially call the “blood sugar roller coaster.”

The blood sugar roller coaster describes the body’s response to a snack or meal high in a type of carbohydrate that enters the blood before you can say “hyperglycemic!” and sends the blood sugar racing upward, only to come crashing down again like a roller coaster. Insulin, a storage hormone, is released and used like miniature taxis to carry molecules of sugar and fat from the blood to either use them as fuel in the muscles and organs or, more likely, to be stored as body fat.

Choosing foods that have less impact on blood sugar is an effective strategy for weight management and health.

This response, when triggered daily, snack after snack, meal after meal, may raise your risk for diabetes and heart disease and can increase cravings for sweet foods, because the resultant low blood sugar has you nipping out to buy more sweet snacks to send the blood sugar back up again (see image below), and around you go. To make things worse, the more often it happens, the more damage is wrought, because the body’s responses are weakened over time.

The blood sugar roller coaster is one to skip. Source

A study that tracked the diets of 120,000 people for 16 years, published in the journal Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Diseases, discovered strong associations between high glycemic foods (foods that make your blood sugar rise quickly) and weight gain. Based on the available research, the international experts on carbohydrates reached a consensus that indicated low-GI diets for prevention and treatment of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

Choosing foods that have less impact on blood sugar is an effective strategy for weight management and health. The combination of insulin-inducing, high-carbohydrate foods and lots of fat—a mix that is not found in nature apart from mammals’ milk, but is found everywhere in our modern junk foods — is the real killer.

Typically, foods that have a reduced effect on the blood sugar (versus those that spike it) are higher in protein, nutrients, and fiber. This means they’re more satisfying and make it easier to know when you’ve eaten enough. This factor is key to why I don’t need to talk to my clients about portion control.

Eat until you’re satisfied

It’s most helpful to base your meals around high-protein foods. To my mind, animal foods are best for this because they offer complete essential amino acid profiles. You can also choose plant sources as long as the carbohydrates don’t stack up too much.

Protein foods provide more satiation than fats or carbs. This is vital in preventing your mind from wandering onto snacking just a few hours after you’ve eaten. Protein doesn’t have the same effect on blood sugar as carbohydrates do, especially when it contains fat. This is for the simple fact that when protein and fat are consumed together, as nature intended, you’re left satisfied for longer. You will therefore be unable to eat the large amount of protein required to have a significant elevating effect on blood sugar and then fall into the same issues as previously discussed.

When you eat satisfying meals with a healthy balance of nutrients, you can trust your body’s hunger and fullness cues, and you will — more intuitively — eat the best amount for you at meals.

Rest and digest

After eating a meal that is nourishing and satisfying, your body switches into a mode called parasympathetic. This is one half of the autonomic nervous system, the other being the sympathetic mode. These two settings are otherwise known as “rest and digest” and “fight or flight,” respectively.

The rest-and-digest mode is about precisely that — resting and digesting. This important mode is also where contentment and good sleep live, among other vital things, like cellular repair. This is why I ask people not to eat at their desks or on the go. It is critical to eat and then relax — but to do this, you must have eaten something that satisfies you.

Stress lives in the fight-or-flight mode and is at odds with digestion and maintaining a healthy weight: When you’re stressed, your body releases cortisol, a major stress hormone. One of cortisol’s roles in the body is to increase the amount of sugar in the blood, something that may contribute to weight gain.

Stress slows your metabolism. This means you burn through fewer calories per day than you would if you weren’t stressed. Further, many of us eat more when we’re stressed, particularly junk foods, because of their effects on dopamine.

Is the importance of being satisfied after you eat (well) coming into clearer focus yet?

Start today

When you eat satisfying meals with a healthy balance of nutrients, you can trust your body’s hunger and fullness cues, and you will — more intuitively — eat the best amount for you at meals.

If you can go from one meal to the next without feeling like you’re about to die, then you have most likely balanced your blood sugar, which improves your chances of being metabolically and cardiovascularly healthy. Physiologically speaking, being satisfied after eating allows you to feel happy and relaxed — a necessary foundation for overall well-being.

Registered nutritionist (BSc mBANT rCNHC) writing about health, nutrition & my battles with chronic disease. For other blog posts https://tim-rees.com/blog/

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