It’s all about portion control, right?

Posted on March 30, 2018

(Last Updated On: March 30, 2018)

You hear this all the time.

“How do I lose weight?”

“Just cut back on your portions.”

And this works, oh, about one out of never times. Portion control is one of those things that sounds great but when put into practice consistently fails.

But portion control works for you, you say. You lost X amount of pounds eating half a slice of cake less than normal and only eating a fist of carbs at dinner each night. Congratulations! You are probably miserable using this behavior modification, and I have no doubt you are “That Person” when you go out with friends to eat. You are right behind “Tupperware Guy” on my top 10 hated list.

I have a new client. Let’s call her Charlotte. Charlotte is gung ho about losing weight and comes in during her third week of training all excited:

Charlotte: I’m so proud of myself! Last night I was out with my friends and I left half of my potatoes on my plate and didn’t eat any bread. Plus, even though I rrrreally wanted to, I didn’t have a single drink.

Does this sound like it’s sustainable? Hell, does this sound like a way you’d like to live? Charlotte goes out with friends 1-2 times per week. So now 1-2 times per week she needs to deprive herself. With an audience of friends (peer pressure anyone?), which is now taking away from the experience of going out (something she looks forward to each week). Plus, she is probably causing a little bit of animosity between her and her friends.

Obviously, I am not much of a fan of this modality for weight loss as willing yourself to eat only half of that chocolate cake – while your significant other and or friend(s) pound it down – constitutes a diet/lifestyle change that is extremely unlikely to work. If your willpower was that good you wouldn’t be dieting in the first place.

Secondly, the point of improving your body composition is to make your life more enjoyable. Charlotte is going to be pretty depressed after about a month of doing the above.

I see this all the time. An overweight person tries some weight loss technique such as portion control, after about a month says something to the tune of, “You know, I just want to enjoy my life. I can deal with being bigger.” On one hand who’s to argue with them? Being X amount of pounds heavier probably is better than being Charlotte multiple times a week. (On the other hand, they just don’t know what they’re doing.)

Thirdly, it’s damn near impossible to quantify. Who cares if you cut your portions back but you eat an extra 3 times that day? You aren’t going to lose any weight/fat. Or:

Dieter A: “I only ate 2 fists and 3 fingers of my dinner tonight! I normally eat 4 whole fists!”

Yeah, but 4 fists of skinless chicken and rice is way less calories than 2 fists and 3 fingers of McDonald’s.

Besides the fact the “portion control” method doesn’t work, why are we even attempting it in the first place? Is this actually why so many people are overweight?

Enter : Why Have Americans Become More Obese?

I love economists. Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics are some of my favorite books. Objectivity is something that seems to be so hard for people to have (myself included at many times), especially people in the fitness field.

The authors of Freakonomics love to say something akin to, “People lie, numbers don’t.” That is, economists see the things for what they’re worth (what the numbers tell them), not what nutritional dogma purports, which made this a refreshing research paper to read. It’s a paper on eating habits done by economists.

As implied in the title, the authors attack the question of why have Americans gotten so fat. People have a ton of guesses:

  • we’re so sedentary now
  • restaurants feed us too much
  • video games
  • McDonald’s
  • processed food
  • computers
  • declination of thyroids everywhere

These answers are normally just some random opinion though, rarely backed by data.

The authors explored a lot of these opinions and, through data, formed their own. So what’s the answer? Hopefully you’ve realized it’s not portion control…This chart from the paper is the main take home point:

Just to be clear this chart is showing how many calories per day Americans ate in 1977-78, AND from which meals these calories came from, in comparison to 1994-1995.

Note: I realize these numbers are now over 15 years old but if anything this discrepancy has probably only gotten worse.  Regardless, the take home point of this data is still important.

Males are eating about 300 total more calories per day and females about 150. That is, humans eat more calories now than they did 20-30 years ago. While this is probably painfully obvious to a lot of people, I still want to mention it as not everyone seems to concede this fact.

Next, where these calories are coming from: Following the furthest column to the right we can see precisely where the increase in calories per day are coming from. 90% (NINETY PERCENT) of the difference in calorie consumption for men and 112% (!!!) for women can be attributed to…drum roll…snacks. In fact, the meal most people blame their overweight misfortunes on, dinner, is where people are eating LESS than they used to.

This is critically important. Rather than putting food in front of you and saying, “Ok, I am only going to eat this much at this meal/snack” you can focus on just not eating that food at all. You could buy a bag of of cookies and try convincing yourself to only eat a little at a time. It’s more likely you will succeed if you just don’t buy the bag at all. Again, if your will power was this good you wouldn’t be overweight to begin with.

Furthermore, controlling portion sizes likely shouldn’t be your first concern. Eating less often should be. You can no longer justify eating more often with increasing your metabolism. (More on this in the future.)

I do want to point out I am not saying people likely wouldn’t be better off by reducing their food intake all over. It’s still a good idea to swap a medium for a Super Size Me. Admittedly, this data is a recent find for me. My first words to new weight-loss clients focus much more on how many calories they are eating. Opposed to how often they eat (although this paper has me experimenting with some new approaches). I’ve had had good results with this method.

However, if your only means of attack for your weight loss endeavors is to copy Charlotte from above, things aren’t looking good down the road for you.  Especially considering this data shows you aren’t treating the cause of your issue.

Conclusion: Hey portion control, eff you.

I will be delving into other topics that this paper brought up. It has great insights into some other common weight loss topics.

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