Portion control is having a moment — as it often does. After all, portion size is an evergreen subject of hand-wringing: A study pops up about the growing entree sizes in chain restaurants. Super Size Me comes out. We express our outrage, then we get distracted by some other dietary demon (sugar, gluten, etc.), a year goes by, and we’re back to portion panic. Right now, we’re going through one of those phases where news media is heavy with portion-size items, and while some of them are worthy of critical thought and examination — well, that’s not really our strong suit when it comes to dietary issues or viral news stories, is it?
The truth is, portion size is a multifaceted issue that touches on everything from global economic shifts to political and corporate entanglements in food production to competitive practices within the foodservice industry. On an individual level, it’s not simple, either. Caloric needs vary based on things like age, height, and activity level. (Even the USDA adds this caveat alongside its recommendations on daily intake.) All this is to say that portion size is indeed a complicated matter worth investigating, but it tends to overshadow some of the not-so-complicated things that deserve attention, too. One in particular, which I suspect could mitigate The Great Portion Panic, at least in your own home: not portion-controlled meals, but balanced ones.
“Balanced eating” is another general nutrition term we all know, but sadly, it gets a lot less airtime than hot topics like portion control and gluten. It doesn’t incite news-media panic, nor has it been co-opted much by the diet industry. It’s sort of a boring, elementary-school area of nutrition. Yeah, sure, we should eat balanced meals. I’ll get right on that as soon as I’m done going Paleo. But, as I learned a few years ago, balanced eating is basically magic.
I found this out when I started intuitive eating in 2013. If you’re new to that concept, you can read more here, but the short version is that I quit dieting and began learning how to just eat, what I wanted, when I wanted it, and however much I needed. At first, as many people do, I went through a carb-heavy phase when all I cared to eat were things like potatoes and pizza — all those starches I’d been desperately avoiding for years. But, in a matter of weeks, that urge faded and I began to desire all sorts of things: broiled salmon, crunchy purple cabbage, scrambled eggs on toast. That alone was a pleasantly shocking development. It turned out that when I was allowed to eat whatever I wanted, I wanted a lot more than carbs. I wanted all the food groups. No, it was more than that. I needed them all to feel truly full and satisfied.
Over time, my plates began to look like a version of those boring elementary-school nutrition pie charts, with slices of protein, fat, carbohydrates. Individual meals varied. Sometimes my pie chart would look more like a pie cut in half; if I did have pizza for lunch, for example, it was mostly fat and carbs. But then my dinner plate would be more protein heavy, and probably include more vegetables. It wasn’t just the basic nutrients that began to balance themselves out, but the flavors I ate, the textures of foods. I craved variety and balance of all kinds, my body was thrilled, and I’d never enjoyed eating so much in my life.
I craved variety and balance of all kinds, my body was thrilled, and I’d never enjoyed eating so much in my life.
“When I talk about this with my clients, I emphasize that portion control is an external ‘rule,’ while balancing meals with a wide variety of foods that are pleasurable and satisfying is totally empowering,” says Erica Leon, MS, RDN, a dietitian and eating disorder specialist based in Westchester County, NY. Leon works with many chronic dieters and disordered eaters in her nutrition practice, so makes a point of highlighting balance as something flexible and individual, too. “Exploring foods and food groups can help a person discover which foods are satisfying and pleasurable to them.” But, she adds, balanced eating doesn’t happen overnight — and that’s a vital element to remember. “It will take some time, patience, and lots of learning experiences… I find that my clients will eventually come back to balanced plates because that is what feels satisfying.”
Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN (and author of Body Kindness) echoes this sentiment, adding that portion control is an inherently problematic concept that tends to backfire. “Humans, in general, don't like to be controlled and tend to eventually rebel against situations where they feel like they don't have a choice. I prefer the concept of balance when considering nutrition.” But she too stresses the importance of framing it in a non-restrictive way: “First and foremost, reframe your ‘why.’ If you’re using balance as a rigid rule and assigning yourself a ‘pass or fail,’ then you are still dieting. Are you choosing to load up on veggies because it's the ‘right’ thing to do? Find another reason, [like] ‘I actually really like the taste of this salad.’ Your choices should feel good.”
Scritchfield also encourages big-picture thinking, rather than focusing too hard on each individual meal. “Balance is flexible, between meals and your overall patterns. For example, pizza night may just be pizza for some, and for others it may have salad and fruit too. You don't need to pile up the veggies every time. Even a small amount of vegetables is beneficial to health. Some meals, you may not even think of nutrition at all — and that's okay, as long as you want to be eating for pleasure.” Above all, she says, “Let go of judgment. Don't congratulate yourself for the kale salad and drown in guilt when you get the side of chips instead of carrot sticks.” Letting yourself explore with curiosity — rather than follow a rigid set of rules — is how you find your own true sense of balance.
When you’ve been following food rules all your life, like I did, it’s hard to let them go (remember, as Leon says, it’s all about time and patience). But when I did, lo and behold, all of this happened organically. So many natural parts of eating had been tainted for me, thanks to a lifetime of dieting and disordered eating, and it took so much work to unlearn those lessons and teach myself new ones. But balanced eating was never a focus in my dieting days, and so it wasn’t something I had to wrestle with now. I never had to fret over putting some greens on my plate or making sure I got enough protein in the morning. It just happened, truly intuitively. Watching myself just do this, without effort, was like finding out I’d been a wizard all this time.
But balanced eating is a power we all have. There are no squibs in this story. (Important caveat: Like anything to do with food, a hyperfocus on balanced eating can, of course, become a disordered behavior, or a warning sign of an underlying issue.) Few elements of nutrition have escaped the clutches of diet culture, but this is one of them; therefore, it’s something most of us can safely focus on. Balanced eating is not about restriction. For most of us, it’s the opposite; it’s about adding more food to the plate, adding more variety, exploring new foods we might enjoy. It’s about having your broiled salmon and your potatoes, too — and how about some garlicky sauteed spinach with that?
Balanced eating happens naturally — if and when you truly allow yourself to eat what you want — simply because it feels good. It’s the most satisfying way to eat. We’re instinctively inclined to enjoy this kind of eating because that’s how our bodies get the fuel they need. I realize this is perhaps the most basic fundamental of nutrition. But in an age when we have so perverted the concept of nutrition, it’s worth stating the obvious. Eating a balanced combination of foods feels and tastes good because it is good for you.
It’s also worth stating that, as ever, individual results may vary. A mindful focus on balanced eating taught me a great deal about my personal inclinations, as well as those obvious, basic human needs. It taught me that if I don’t get enough sleep, I have an insatiable desire for starch and sugar the next day (quelle surprise: my body is desperate for quick energy). It’s how I realized that protein is mandatory for me in the morning if I don’t want to be cranky by 11 a.m. It’s how I learned to always bring a banana on a plane ride. It’s how I stopped freaking out about my sudden, constant craving for Baked Lays, looked at the calendar, and realized what week of the month it was. Balanced eating taught me about my needs and preferences, and how to be flexible when they change.
In addition to all this, balanced eating taught me about, yes, my own personal portion needs. Eating a variety of foods changed the volume of food I was eating overall. Sure, there were times when I ate more of one thing and less of another, but when I had some of everything in a meal, the meal itself was typically smaller. It made sense. I thought back to all the times I’d eaten a plain veggie salad the size of a garbage truck, because that was how much I needed to feel full (though never satisfied). If I’d have just thrown in some farro, some chicken, maybe half an avocado, then I probably could have eaten my salad out of a bowl instead of a mixing bowl. And I definitely would have enjoyed it more.
When you have an incomplete meal, you wind up eating more of what you do have. This is an oft overlooked factor in the portion debate: We’re so focused on volume that we forget about variety. This too is both a big-picture issue (concerning food access) and an individual one. But if we’re truly concerned about portion sizes, then we can’t ignore balanced eating.
The more kinds of things we put on our plates, the more nourished our bodies and the more satisfying our meals. Let’s first stop worrying about the size of the pie and instead think about adding more slices to the pie chart. It’s not about shrinking the burger, but putting more things around it. In this case, at least, more is less.