Ditching the Diet: should I watch my portions more carefully?

File 2016-02-25, 9 28 48 AMOften when we get motivated to make changes to our diet (particularly for weight loss), its common to want to feel in control of *everything* all at once. Especially when motivation is high, this seems like a good idea – and it’s easy to get caught in the trap of believing that the more control we can exercise, the better.

But finding a healthy-for-you way to eat is not the end product of control or tight restraints. Starting to implement changes to our habits is a step by step process. 

Here’s a common scenario that I see  happen a lot:
Sarah decides she is going to eat better, avoid the junk food, and make big changes to her life – including weight loss.  One thing she pinpoints as an area for improvement is the amount of starch she eats at meals. She knows that the starch (like potatoes, rice, pasta, bread, etc) is her favourite and she can easily eat too much of those things. So she decides to reduce or maybe eliminate the starch at her dinner meals. As she considers further what her diet should look like, she also decides that maybe she is eating too much food altogether – and so it would be a good idea to reduce all of her portions so that she is eating less.  However, Sarah is choosing to eat a healthy diet of things like chicken and veggies and other nutrient-dense foods, as part of her nutritional / diet strategy as well. So why is this a problem? Is this not a “good” change to make? Isn’t eating less a top priority for better health and weight loss? 

The problem is not the choice of foods, and possibly not even the overall portions.

Yes, eating more natural, healthy foods is definitely an important part of weight management. The issue is the function of restriction in the process of creating her new habits. Sarah is taking massive action, instead of a more moderate, methodical approach. It can be more challenging to approach changes from a middle ground – it doesn’t necessarily give us that surge of control we are craving – or the immediate gratification we might be looking for on the scale . And often this control or gratification is what gets in the way of long term change and ultimate “success”.

It keeps us in the yo-yo diet cycle. 

So first let me say that potions are (can be) important. Your portion size is unique to you and your body’s needs, and will be different for different foods / macronutrients – and even day to day. However, making significant changes to your diet (aka daily nutrition) works best when it is done in methodical stages that don’t eventually overwhelm the limits on our control. An over-zealous control over EVERY portion right off the hop can be more detrimental to the average person looking to make significant changes, than if it is approached from a more moderate, methodical series of steps.

The problem in the scenario described above is that it is trying to tackle too much at once. For chronic dieters who struggle with portion control / overeating / cravings, this is a common obstacle towards long-term change. Too much change, too soon just doesn’t work for most people.

Especially when the things that are trying to be controlled are not where the most benefit can be gained.

The #1 modification that was identified by Sarah was reducing starch at dinner. For many people with weight loss goals, this is a challenging thing to do. Maybe not for the first week or two when motivation is high and the willpower tank is still full – but over the long term, it often becomes harder to maintain that control consistently, partly because a big side effect of reducing total food intake is a noticeable increase in hunger or cravings (again, particularly when starches / sugar is reduced, let alone everything else).

Next, she is then attempting to couple this change in her diet with a reduction / control of portions aimed at ALL the GOOD nourishment she has decided to include on her plate.  While this may seem admirable (or maybe even necessary), it likely leaves her with the problem of an even bigger sense of additional hunger, cravings, low energy, etc. – and possibly even more extreme issues of feeling deprived or frustrated from lack of satisfaction at meals.

These are not motivating feelings to have when you are wanting to feel better about your choices and lifestyle changes.

And further to that, these are just not healthy, sustainable strategies – these are “diet industry” strategies, and years of research tells us that those traditional ideas just don’t add up to a leaner, healthier body over the long run.

Especially for those that tend to be carb lovers / over-eaters, adhering to smaller portions of those foods can be a tough adjustment, both physically and emotionally. So, allowing yourself to not also tightly control the other good-for-you foods – like the chicken or even veggies – that you are putting on your plate, can be a useful tool in the process of modifying the portions of the starch – which, especially from a weight-management perspective, is usually a more beneficial place to focus on.

In other words, instead of restricting or controlling all the portions, re-assign the portions. Less starch equals more veggie, healthy fat, or lean protein portions, for example. Ultimately, there may be a point at which portion size can be re-evaluated – but in my experience, it is not often an issue of overeating things like chicken that make or break long term weight loss and maintenance. More often, it’s the lack of sufficient satisfaction from meals that result in additional cravings and hunger or lack of energy later (which, let’s face it – this often results in consuming something more like a cookie than extra carrot sticks) that messes up the sustainability of the process.

Consider: could a better strategy for Sarah be to not arbitrarily control the potion of something like chicken at dinner while she focuses on enjoying that quality-over-quantity portion of potatoes? Could Sarah have a better experience with her practice of reducing the starch portion (or whatever the issue at hand for you might be) if she ensured her fullness and satisfaction meter was fulfilled with enough chicken and grilled veggies to get the job done?  (if you have questions about why the chicken portion is less of concern than starch portion, then contact me and we can chat about macronutrients!) 

I like to think of it as “overeating” the good stuff (or the foods that are less offensive to one’s weight management goals) to avoid the lure of the “trigger” foods that tend to look more appealing when I’m hungry and tired and not feeling satisfied. Again, this may not be the long term solution for some, but this is a process that takes a methodical approach and can’t be expected to be solved in a matter of weeks.

Ditch the diet mindset to make your hard work of modifying your choices and habits a long-term, lifelong, sustainable way of life.

And by the way, don’t think for a minute that a healthy diet strategy means that there are certain foods that are arbitrarily off-limits. The example of the potatoes / chicken / veggie meal described here is not intended to be a description of a what anyone “should” be eating – it is just easier to describe it in simple terms. The fact that we are targeting the starch here is for example only – please remember that ALL food groups should be included in a healthy-for-you way. I believe that we can make room for all our favourite foods when we don’t live in the “diet” world and have taken the step-by-step approach to creating the nutritional and “whole life” practices that work for us as individuals. You don’t need to “go on a diet” to do this, or follow a specific plan – this is more about tapping into your own human intuition and biology in all areas of your life.

Questions or want to know more?
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