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“Watch portion size,” or listen to your body?

Posted by on Mar 17, 2009 in Blog Posts | 1 comment

I read a little study in the Journal of  American Dietetics Association (JADA) recently. It happens often these days that I finish an article and come up with completely different conclusions.

The title was:
The Effect of Portion Size Information on Food Intake
Basically, they studied 33 non-dieting adults. On three different occasions, they were given different “portion” sizes of pasta like ½ or 1  or 1 1/2 portions. They were informed of the portion size.  They were told that they were comparing sauces and to eat to a level of “comfortable satiety” or comfortable fullness.  What the study wanted to test was if portion size information guided folks on how much to eat. In theory, telling someone they were getting one portion meant they would stop after that portion.
However, the information they were given about portion size did NOT influence the amount eaten. Participants ate roughly the same amount whether they were initially given 1/2 a portion or more than a portion.
HUNGER IS THE BEST COOK
On another note, subjects rated their hunger levels before meals and rated how much they liked different sauces. The best predictor of whether they liked the taste? How hungry they were before the meal.  How does this relate to childhood feeding and your picky eater? Allowing children to develop an appetite by stopping grazing and spacing meals every 2-4 hours or so is likely to improve their appetite, and accept and like foods more. A hungry (but not ravenous) child will be more willing to try a new food than one that has been snacking on Goldfish or carrot sticks all day.
Back to portions…
The conclusion was that telling folks what a “portion” size is may not help guide the amount eaten.  And yet, every weight loss advice/book/article mentions “portion control.”
What I liked about this study was not pointed out by the authors. The subjects all seemed to know how much they wanted to eat. They didn’t eat more when faced with a larger portion, they ate the same amount, to “comfortable satiety” when instructed. I actually think this is good news. Perhaps we should start out wellness advice with “eat until you are comfortably full.” It is your body, not some external set of rules that dictates how much you eat. This is “intuitive” or “tuned-in” eating.
A caveat is that these were non-dieting adults. I wonder what the difference would have been if the subjects had been dieters? Would they have been able to self-regulate? Would the deprivation of dieting and ignoring internal hunger cues have led them to eat more? Or perhaps dieters would have eaten less, paying attention to the rules of  “portion” size even if they were hungry? (Friends and patients who are chronic dieters tell me this is a pattern of eating they get stuck in: skip meals, eat small “portions” like a Healthy Choice meal, arrive home from work ravenously hungry and eat large amounts to a point of being uncomfortably full.)
I don’t know, but it seems to point out again that one of the mantras of the weight-loss world of “portion” control is probably not the helpful tool we thought it was.
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One Comment

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  1. Jean

    This is fascinating and I’m intrigued by your conclusion! Since I’ve done Weight Watchers a couple of times, I’m also curious if the results would be different for dieters. But I think the idea that we could re-learn how to listen to our bodies is inspiring!