March 23, 2009

Portion Control, Pizza, and Peanut Butter

But It's Just One Slice!
Photo credit: Brocha

(This was supposed to be a back-from-vacation, well-researched, educational post incorporating the latest breaking health and fitness news available on the web! Instead, it’s a post about pizza and peanut butter. Sorry—we got delayed on the last leg of our trip and spent a couple extra days without internet. Good for the soul! Not so good for the blogging. But we're back home now--thanks for your patience!)

I’ve know I’ve written about Portion Control before. But the subject intrigues me: controlling the size of our meals and snacks seems like it should be simple and straightforward. But it’s not! Instead it’s a complex psychological battle. How does the sensible part of our brain remain in control when the childish, greedy part of us always wants “more, more, more?”

(And note: by "portion control," I don’t mean limiting one's intake of healthy food when one is actually hungry. I’m not a fan of any diet, eating plan, or lifestyle that requires ignoring true hunger signals on an ongoing basis. The kind of “portion control” I’m referring to is the kind that’s meant to combat the consumption of unholy amounts of food simply because it tastes good.)

Of course one tactic in the portion control battle is the use of logic, reason, and self-discipline. Which works great when I'm feeling all logical, reasonable, and self-disciplined. That occasionally happens, I swear! But most of the time? I need to resort to Stealth and Trickery.

What is A Serving Size?

Years ago, when I was actively dieting (though I didn't call it that--I called it going on a "thing" because I didn't like the word diet), portion control was psychologically simpler. I knew what kind of foods I should eat and what I should avoid; I knew how many calories I could eat per day; I looked up the calorie counts of everything I ate; I weighed and measured and tallied and kept a detailed food diary. It worked! I lost weight. But it was tedious and restrictive and a royal pain in the ass.

Now I don't weigh and measure and tally anymore--but I would really like to keep those sneaky pounds from creeping back on as the years go by. So I have to try to keep to "reasonable" serving sizes, despite being quite greedy when it comes to tasty food. How do I manage to feel like I've gotten "enough" without totally scarfing up everything in the kitchen? It's tricky!

In the previous portion control post, I noted that it helps than I'm an idiot. I'm as easy to fool as a toddler when it comes to portion size. So by employing simple tricks like changing from a short fat glass to a tall skinny one, or using a smaller plate or bowl, I can believe I'm actually eating more than I am. Hooray for stupidity!

But it's an ongoing battle, and I continue to find new challenges and dumb-ass solutions. My latest battles, as the title suggests, involve pizza and peanut butter sandwiches. (Also cereal and dinners at friends’ houses). I’m hoping some of you have tips for other foods and situations too—unless of course you are all driven solely by logic and reason and self-discipline?

Pizza is Easy—At Home!

Pizza is a great example of what a nitwit I am. I have discovered I can be satisfied with much less pizza if I first fill 90% of my plate with salad, and then take a single piece of reasonably healthy whole wheat pizza and cut that single slice into 3 or 4 skinny, skinny, slices.

By doing this, I now miraculously have more pizza!

(This necessitates starting with a regular sized slice, not a giant one like the cute kid above is holding--or it sort of defeats the portion control goal).

And I know the pizza slicing trick works, at least for me. Because when I am in a social setting, I generally do not make an ass of myself by dissecting my pizza into tiny pieces. Instead I end up eating several full-sized slices of pizza. One slice, no matter how big, is just not "enough."

Don’t Invite Me Over to Your House

Speaking of social situations… why am I totally unable to limit myself to a reasonable portion of food when someone else cooks dinner for me? Of course it’s nice to be polite and make sure my hosts know how much I appreciate their efforts. But I could do that by eating a normal amount of food and expressing my pleasure about the food with words.

For some reason though, words feel inadequate! I seem to believe it requires second or third or fourth helpings to get the sincerity of my message across.

So I am trying to train myself to take smaller initial portions, since I know darn well I will be heaping more on my plate as soon as I can. I say "trying" because, well, I'm not all that good at it yet.

Peanut Butter Sandwiches

Lately I’ve resurrected a childhood favorite: the peanut butter sandwich. (As a kid, I had peanut butter and jelly; now I seem to prefer my peanut butter with honey and banana slices. And sometimes I use almond butter instead of peanut butter. But it’s essentially the same deliciousness.) This is a source of great pleasure, but also involves major Portion Control Angst!

Here’s the problem: Take two slices of whole wheat bread, enough peanut butter, honey, and bananas for a proper, proportionate filling; a big glass of milk (mandatory), plus the rest of the banana (because every meal needs to have at least one fruit or vegetable) and it all adds up to more calories than I need to eat at one sitting. (Unless I’ve just hiked 20 miles. Which I rarely have done by lunchtime on a typical weekday.)

So I need to make this meal smaller. But wait a minute... I can't! I used to have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a big glass of milk as an after-school snack when I was a kid. And then I’d go on to finish dinner without a problem. So how could it be possible I don't get a whole sandwich for an entire meal as an adult? I'm entitled to one! A whole sandwich is the “official” serving size, everyone knows that.

I seem to by physically unable to fix half a peanut butter sandwich. I may intend to when I get out the bread, but after I take out the first slice something mysterious happens and all of sudden the second slice is out there too and peanut butter is being smeared liberally and the little honey bear is drizzling honey and there are banana slices everywhere. I have no control over the peanut butter sandwich situation.

But finally, a solution occurred to me: I go ahead and take out two slices of bread, but I cut off the crusts, generously. This cuts down the size of the sandwich, but it still makes it seem like a whole sandwich. Less surface area means less peanut butter, honey, bananas, and milk to wash it down with. But I haven't had to compromise with a measly half-sandwich.

Cereal Silliness

The final Dumb Trick involves cereal. Have you ever noticed how small the recommended serving size of cereal looks in a bowl? If you don't measure it out, it's easy to eat two or three serving sizes and still feel like you're not getting "enough."

The obvious solution is to use a smaller bowl. But here's another technique that's weirdly effective: do you put fruit on your cereal? If so, put the fruit in first, then sprinkle cereal on top. Magically, it takes much less cereal to feel like a "full" bowl when the fruit sits underneath rather than on top!

Is anyone else this easy to fool? Got any good tricks for making less food "feel" like more?


  1. Great post. I have dealt myself with portion size and its tough. I love wheat thins with ranch dressing and shredded cheese but I tend to eat way too much of it. I think I might start measuring the amount of dressing I use.
    I like your idea of pizza. It works well at home but in a social setting it is tough. Having lots of salad with it helps though, I agree.

  2. portion control IS a tough one and 100% why I eat healthy most of the time.
    That way I can toss any notion of portion to the proverbial wind :) and, when I dont and it's a lot of crap, at least it isnt a 7 days a week thing.

    welcome home!

  3. You might be interested in a book called Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink. It's not a diet book but a book about the psychology of eating. Just the kind of stuff you're talking about here. I thought it was a fun & interesting read.

  4. I'm probably the worst of your readers when it comes to control, (portion or otherwise!) but I've taken to sneaking veggies into my cooking so at least I'm eating less meat and more veggies. not quite like Jessica Seinfeld's purees.. I'll shred carrots and cook them til they're soft, and they just disappear into my tacos! good for spag sauce and chili too. Come to think of it, I should have put them in the meatballs my sister and I made!
    I just had this convo with one of my friends last night. He's trying to get his cholesterol down to normal (wow.. 30 isn't old, is it?!) and I was saying he could do cauliflower puree in mashed potatos, so it LOOKED like alot more of the good stuff. His response? "I'm the one cooking, so I know it's in there"

  5. I don't know if this is the case in the USA, but it certainly is here in Australia: BREAD IS BIGGER NOW!!

    By a LOT. 2 slices of bread back when I was a kid were about the same portion as maybe 2/3 of a single slice now. (Don't believe me? Find an ooooooold toaster, preferably one with those drop down sides. Now try and fit today's bread in there. Nope!)

    Serving sizes in general are bigger. PLATES are bigger! My mother's good china from her wedding (which I have eaten off maybe three times in my entire life!) has dinner plates that are the size of today's salad plates.

    Is it any wonder we struggle with portion control?

    I also second Wansink's "Mindless Eating" - it's a real eye opener aobut sizes.

  6. I love it! I don't think you are stupid - rather, quite ingenious! I'm the same way with the serving dishes. I eat off the same dishes as my kids (yay for primary colored plastic!) and get all flustered when someone presents me with a meal on a normal sized dinner plate. The cereal one's a great idea too. Although that's a big reason why I eat oatmeal - it's automatically portion controlled (either that or I have to cook some more). With cereal I'm constantly refilling just to finish off the milk;)

  7. This is one reason why having your crave-food-of-choice be soup and/or beef bones, portion control is reaaaallly easy.... :)

  8. In our household we have moved to desert size plates for the evening diner. Oh that slice of pizza the little boy has in his hands would dwarf the plate quite a few times over. Eating needs to be all the senses working together. If your eyes see the plate full when you load up with stuff, you bargain your mind to believe that this will fill you.

  9. Did I see you drive by me on 95 in Florida?

  10. I have nothing to add. I'm easy enough to fool, but I am too lazy to try.

  11. What Leah said--me too.

    Welcome to the east coast.


  12. Mmmmmm Pizza...Sal's Pizza is HUGE and I LOVE IT!!! LOL

    The girls at work giggle at me because I have measuring spoons and cups in my desk, whatever..I don't care I don't eyeball anything I measure. Only way I know for sure.

  13. Yesiree. I fool myself all the time. I want to eat seemingly unlimited portions sometimes...a lot of times actually!

    Giant veggie salads (I measure the dressing and toppings though), big bowls of melon-y fruit salad. Fruit topped with yogurt garnished with granola and cereal - looks like a big bowl of cereal. Tastes even better. Air-popped popcorn garnished with chips. Veggies, veggies and more veggies added to everything.

    Like Carla said, when you eat healthy you can kinda toss portion control to the winds. Plus I find I can feel full and stop on whole foods much better than on processed stuff. It's like they put some secret Must-Eat-More ingredient in there or something. And sugar? It's like a snowball effect for me.

  14. I've got the cereal portion control down pat - I use a fruit nappy (little tiny bowl) which I can then fill up. It looks like a lot, but it's far less than what fits in a cereal bowl.
    I also use a dessert plate for the rest of my meals. I'm thinking, though, I might have to switch to a bread plate - can still fit quite a lot of food on that dessert plate....

  15. I'm with mizfit.

    If I eat healthy and just focus on that, it helps me deal with and get over the cravings for junk.

  16. Hi, I just started reading your blog and have in fact put in on my blog as one to follow! I like my fitness and nutrition advice snarky, and yours fits the bill fantastically.

    I had to comment on this post because pizza, peanut butter, and cereal (oh, and pancakes) are the very things I, who normally have no problem sticking to recommended portion sizes, can never seem to downsize as much as I would like. I do put fruit in my cereal bowl first, like you said---an excellent piece of advice! But for lunch I'll often have a peanut butter sandwich with honey and a banana on the side. Hmm...I'll have to try your trick of removing the crusts (although didn't Mom always say that's the healthiest part?). And pizza? About the only compromise I can make there is not to eat it too frequently, so that I can enjoy liberally when I do. But oh, pizza, how I'll miss you...

  17. I'm as easy to fool as a toddler, too!

    The fruit-on-the-bottom cereal trick is a great one. I also have a set of miniature teacups that aren't actually good for anything except holding a reasonable portion size of my evening ice cream or chocolate covered almonds-- in other words, they're invaluable.

  18. Portion control is one of my costant battles. I have tried to find dishes that make things easier, but honestly, I still feel cheated sometimes.
    The best thing I ever did was buy some new dishes with smaller plates and bowls, and some 4 oz ramekins for yogurt and pudding. It's easier to eat less...and even if I load up the plate, it's' still less than before...because once it's on that plate, so help me I'll eat it...

  19. I measure out my cereal servings, but I add fruit to my cereal, or I nuke it in the microwave for 30 seconds to warm up the milk. Seems when it's warm, it somehow tricks my body into thinking I'm satisfied.. all warm and fuzzy!! lol

    I'm getting better and better with portion control :)

    I do that salad/pizza thing when my friends suggest Pizza Hut or even at a buffet. Fill up on salad, then b.s. a bit, and then see if I even need to take another trip up there.

  20. It's not my eyes my stomach checks with, it's my mouth. I can't fool myself by using smaller dishes or dividing things into several helpings. And measuring and weighing everything I eat is so mind-numbingly boring I only tried it once. One of the many reasons why exercise is my main form of weight control.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  21. Crabby,

    Glad you and the Lobster are settling down in your summer home.

    Like Ms. Fit, I try to eat healthy, so portion control is less of an issue. When I'm eating "not healthy", I try to be aware of portion control. (At home, I will put ice cream in a measuring cup...seriously. Since half a cup isn't much, I'll usually but it in some sparkling water and make myself a "shake".)

    But, I've noticed I overeat for 3 reasons:

    1) I'm not paying attention. (Solution: Pay attention!)

    2) I'm really hungry, and am eating quickly. (Solutions: try not to let myself get that ravenous, if I am ravenous, remind myself to SLOW DOWN.)

    3) Emotional suppression. The classic "stuffing things down." (Solution: Ask myself, "What is it that I don't want to feel?")

    As you can probably tell, I've had some overeating issues ;-)

  22. I am exactly the opposite of you. I have better portion control when I'm out of the house. Probably the whole "fat girls should never be seen eating" mentality I'm still trying to get out of my brain but when I am at home, forget it. Most days I do ok but if I have had a bad day or my "friend" is about to make a visit, then I turn into an eating machine. It would astonish you how much food I can actually put away in a short time. Then I feel all bloated and lifeless so it's not worth it, but do I think about those things before I scarf down all that food? no.

  23. Aw Crabby - if only I was so easy. (And I'm going to start calling you Elvis Ms. PB and Banana. If you tell me you're adding bacon I'm going to get *really* suspicious.)

    I do the smaller bowl/plate thing. I also try to head off the social situation by going for the healthy stuff first. Hopefully by the time I'm ready for desert I'm full enough to just taste a bit. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. *shrug*

    But pb&j? Oy. Never less than a full 2 slices. And probably a minimum 4x a single serving of PB. I do use organic pb and sugar free jelly though. Hey - every little bit counts, right?

  24. Yay! Crabby's back in town!

    My attention was caught by Charlotte's comment about adding more cereal to finish up the milk in the bowl.
    Today's profound question: why do they sell packages of hot dog buns and hot dogs in unequal numbers? Why?
    (Yes, I know everyone here is far too good to eat hot dogs, but sadly I've noticed this trend with soy hot dogs as well.)
    I know they want to sell their food stuffs, but it's irritating to always have leftovers of one package or another.
    What, me? Anal-retentive-obsessive-compulsive? Moi????

  25. He he....this post made me smile! Partly it's because American sizes of everything are HUGE. If I had a way of attaching a photograph here, I'd show you a photo of an American t-spoon compared to a South African one. I could do the same with American vs South African mugs and bowls...

  26. Acck! No bacon in my peanut butter sandwiches, thank you very much!

    So I'm loving all these tips. And I have to say I'm amazed all of you who can eat appropriate amounts of healthy food without thinking about portion control!

    Because for me, if it tastes good, "fullness" gets rather subjective. Sure, I can keep from overeating broccoli, if there is even such a thing as overeating broccoli--but some healthy stuff still manages to taste really good, like cereal or toast or dark chocolate or guacamole etc. You guys can just... stop? I have to resort to lectures or trickeryto keep from scarfing a whole days worth of calories at one sitting.

  27. At my age, my stomach is more and more, making my decisions on portion control. I am physically unable to eat much at one sitting and I hate it.

  28. My "full switch" has apparently been broken for most of my life and if I like something, I don't know when to stop. I use small plates, small bowls and small forks to make the portions look bigger.

    My biggest problem area is snacks like popcorn, pretzels, crackers (and we won't talk about ice cream). Now I'll only buy the single serving snacks because no matter the size, 1 ounce or 1 pound, it's all one serving to my brain. I also store them in the garage so getting a second serving is very inconvenient. I don't like the waste of all the packaging, but it's the only way I can eat my favorite foods without overdosing.

    Funny how I don't feel that a head of cauliflower is one serving ...

  29. The arch enemy of portion control is buffet style eating. If it's there I can't stop myself! I am like a fly to the light! But I agree that portion control is much better for you than any other diet. And hey if you do eat a gigantic piece of pizza you can try my blog's cardio circuit.

  30. Welcome back Crabby! For portion control for bread you could try making it yourself or buying un-sliced and make thin slices. I use a bread maker and get two loaves out of what it thinks is one, when I bake them in the oven. You also control the chemicals that way ;)

  31. Portion control is indeed a challenge! If I wait until I feel full I might pop like a wood tick (sorry for the gross analogy! I like to slam some water prior to a meal..this usually helps me prevent gorging myself like a lion! I have been away for a couple of weeks for different reasons and am trying to catch up...kind of different without the internet around...yes?

  32. You WOULD mention PB and pizza! You know, I can imagine giving up ice cream for life, but the idea of giving up either pizza or peanut butter gives me the cold shivers.

    Portion control is a tough one for me. Currently I weigh my food and that helps. I know what a portion size looks like. But a 16g portion of PB still looks small. It's better if I serve it on a teaplate/saucer with my apple, as the apple fills the plate, but still. It's not so bad when it goes in my smoothie, as that fills a nice large glass.

    As for pizza, I've not mastered that. If there is a whole pizza in the house, I want my half. I think I need to just learn to make it, at least that way, I could probably make a lighter pizza.

    Currently, I just try to have it only once a week. And eat what I want and don't guilt over it. That's working at the moment, but I still need to learn portion control with pizza. I'll have to try the salad before pizza trick.

  33. I have major issues with portion control. I can find myself eating a huge slice of cake and saying well, it's only one slice. A bolthouse protein soy drink is one (but the label says 2 servings). And so on.

    And salad dressing... I can't eat a salad with only ONE portion of thousand island dressing on it! I need to coat every piece of greens or else I can't eat those nasty little things.

    Yes, I'm working on my mindset.

    Vee -

  34. This was a great post & I know so many can relate!!!!

    I love your ways to get portion control working for you! The cereal one is great & I have been known to break things up into smaller pieces so it appears as if I am eating more! I never cut off the crust from bread. I love bread too much & have worked that into my daily calories. I eat it plain though since I just love bread & eat all kinds of whole grain varieties.

    Portion control has become a way of life for me though since I have been at this for so long. I think with time, for some people, that may happen & I am pretty good at knowing what is a portion size now. I eat very healthy so like some of your other posts, it is second nature to me.

  35. " if there is even such a thing as overeating broccoli"--
    This broccoli addict doesn't think there is.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  36. Portion control, in the grand scheme of things overweight and obesity-related, plays a bigger role than the quality of the food. If we just ate LESS, and I'm not talking starvation portions, just a little less, we'd cut into the overweight issue significantly. I eat pretty well, but I'm still a big fan of burgers, ice cream and such (who isn't?). But at least 80% of the time, my portion sizes are reasonable, so when you combine that with an active lifestyle and good genes, I'm able to stay fit (I won't be gracing any magazine covers, but you know what I mean).

    Maybe we should think of a meal as something that fits on a salad plate, not a dinner plate. That would be plenty of food, but not too much. Not my idea, but a good one, I think.

  37. that is about the size slice of pizza I like to eat. But all kidding aside portion control is so important.

  38. I have been hopeless with portion control. Small plate trickery never worked and I thought this was an unsurmountable problem. This year I started to listen to my stomach (in an act of total desparation) and in most cases I have learnt to eat until I am full regardless of how tasty the meal is and I'm a total sucker for yummy food.

  39. I have a terrible time with portion control. I'm an "all or nothing" eater. Here are a couple of tips that have helped me.

    1) What helps me eat less pizza it to eat the pizza with a knife and fork. For some reason I eat less when I'm using utensils.

    2) Eating an apple and a glass of water before going out to eat. The pectin expands a bit in your stomach when you eat the apple and chase it with a glass of water.

    3) Watch "Bizzare Foods With Andrew Zimmer" on the Travel Channel right before eating. It will kill the appetite!

    Even following these tips, I still tend to eat too big of portions!


  40. I have less of a problem with food portion control than I do with finding something tasty but lower in calories to drink. I no longer drink diet colas because of other health issues. I find water boring with a meal, and wine or juice are too high in calories. I pour a bit of flavourful juice like cranberry/raspberry or pomegranate with berries and fill the rest of the glass with a low-sodium club soda.

  41. Peanut butter is awesome! I have it as a reward after strength training. Instead of putting it on bread, I will spread it on two Quaker caramel rice cakes. I put one teaspoon of PB on each cake. That's 100 calories for both rice cakes, and about 90 calories of PB...190 calories for after a workout isn't bad, refuels the muscles, and gives me my PB "fix" for the day!

  42. I "HEART" Peanut Butter! I gobble it by the spoonful every day after work...

    But I digress-- not only are bread sizes bigger now, but so are plates, bowls, cups/glasses, restaurant servings... you get the idea.

    One trick I use: eat (and CHEW) slowly for 10 minutes, take a 5 minute "Get Smart" break to make yourself realize how much hunger you truly have left in ya(read a mag, watch TV, unload the dishwasher--whatever), then resume your SLOW EATING for an additional 10 minutes.

    Another trick is: cut/divide everything you eat into 4 pieces (much like the pizza trick!)... yes, even hotdogs and spaghetti portions.

    These things will force you to eat and chew more slowly, which are the ultimate mechanisms that reset your "Set Point" (the amount of food that your body hungers for, craves and desires to keep it at a certain weight). It's called learning to eat like a Naturally Thin person! It works like a charm.

  43. That's my kind of slice of pizza!

    I'm terrible with controlling portion sizes. I do the same thing with piling up the salads (no dressing), and when I'm at someone's house I'll say how much I loved it and ask if I can take some home with me so they won't feel disappointed that I didn't stuff myself (or I'll just stuff myself. You know. Either way).

  44. I totally understand how small a recommended cereal serving can be. But last week, I bought the Kashi Go Lean Crunch and it is great! Although the serving size is one cup, because of the cluster of the cereal makes it super hearty and filling. Plus I chop up a small-med. size banana. Something else I do that tricks my eyes and my stomach is with my oatmeal. When my bananas are getting too ripe, I cut it up in rounds and freeze it. I take the frozen banana to work, and add it to my oatmeal mixture before putting it in the microwave. The frozen banana thaws and gives the oatmeal so much volume. And because the bananas are ripe, it makes your plain oatmeal super sweet - like eating banana bread. Sometimes in the morning, I'll have 2 slices of toast with all natural peanute butter and with sliced banans too; I didn't know it was way over on the calorie meter per serving though...

  45. My latest trick is to feed my 2 year old daughter and myself off of my portioned smaller plate. she takes a bite i take a bite i eat less and slower ( since that's suposed to help you eat less too) because usually i eat like somebody's going to snatch my plate away at any moment!


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