Separate 'need' and 'want' to get a handle on portion control

Everyone knows that portion control is key to managing weight. The problem is that the mind deals better when things are added than when they're subtracted. Intellectually, you know that it is more healthful to eat reasonable portions. But emotionally, you still want the entire carton of ice cream, not just a scoop.

When it comes to food, need and want are two separate issues. If the mind always told us to eat only what we need, few of us would be overweight.

But life isn't that simple. Stress, habits, even how much you sleep can all have a lot to do with how much you eat.

Let's take a closer look at each factor:

Most people lose their appetites when stress is extreme (such as when a loved one dies or you've been in a car accident). However, some people experience an increased appetite when they are under moderate, chronic stress.

Solutions include learning to manage stress through such methods as regular exercise, yoga, meditation, soothing music and confronting problem thinking that leads to greater stress.

If you usually eat under certain conditions your mind will learn to expect it.

For example, if you eat every night while watching TV, you'll start salivating and your stomach will start releasing gastric juices to prepare for eating whenever you sit down to watch your favorite shows. If you try to keep from eating, your brain will keep insisting that you obey, making it extremely difficult to break the habit with "cold-turkey" methods.

Instead, aim for small steps toward changing your habit. You might focus on gradually changing the quality of the foods you eat while watching TV. Then work on reducing the quantities.

Another useful technique is to do something incompatible with eating during the time you usually watch TV. Working on a craft or doing stretches can distract you from eating.

The types of foods you eat and their nutritional value also have an effect on appetite. The brain's job is to keep you alive and well. If you eat poorly, the brain will attempt to get you to eat what you need, and the tendency will be to eat too much of the foods you do eat.

Eating too much sugar or starchy, non-nutritive foods (like white breads, pastas and cereals) can destabilize blood sugar levels in your body, which can affect hunger and appetite.

Fiber in foods is filling. A low-fiber diet contributes to eating bigger portions because you need to eat more to feel the same amount of fullness.

Being too restrictive and rigid with eating can create a psychological state of deprivation that makes you more preoccupied with the foods you're trying to eliminate and later cause you to eat larger portions of those foods.

There are other factors that also can influence portion control, such as drinking alcohol, which causes you to eat more, and the easy availability of food (the open doughnut box at the office).

As with most issues surrounding eating and weight, portion control is not as simple as just telling yourself, "Don't eat." Take the time to examine how your lifestyle may be encouraging you to keep eating when it's not necessary.

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