Denise came for her first Diet Designs consultation with thirty extra pounds of fat on her body but little extra fat to trim away from her diet. A busy executive in charge of foreign rights for a major movie studio, she made pasta with marinara sauce a mainstay of her business lunches, never touched chocolate, and even tried to work out as much as her schedule permitted. Sure, she had some soft spots and slipups in her eating regime, but in general, Denise was nutritionally aware and proactive in her habits. I could quickly tell that she'd walked into my office wondering what new trick I had to offer in her long-term battle with her weight. As a nutritionist in today's fad-driven diet environment, I'm used to that.
As always, I began by asking Denise to tell me what she ate on a typical day. And as usual, we never made it past breakfast.
"Cereal, nonfat milk, toast, and fruit." She looked victorious, sure that these healthy foods were above reproach. They were in the abstract, but it was the concrete details that mattered to me.
"Do you pour the cereal out of the box?"
"Well, yes." Denise stared at me as if I might be from another planet where cereal came in some other kind of container.
"Into any old bowl?"
"Into one of the bowls that I have," she pronounced carefully, as if to a small child.
"And the milk, do you pour it from the carton?"
"Yes...that would be correct." When I saw Denise looking at her watch and fidgeting, I knew I only had a minute to make it to the punch line.
"So how much cereal and milk do you think end up in your bowl?"
"What do you mean?" asked Denise, stumped and not liking it.
"In cups. How many cups of cereal and how many cups of milk?"
"I don't know...Maybe a couple of each? Less milk than cereal."
"Mm-hmm." I made a note. "And the toast?"
"No butter. Just marmalade!" she pronounced with a smile.
"How many slices?"
My mental calculator was clicking. So far we were up to about 600 calories.
"And the fruit?"
She held out a fist, looked at it, then added the other. "Something between one and two of these."
That would tip the total up to about 750.
"And how many calories do you estimate your breakfast adds up to?"
Denise dealt in numbers every day and her answer was quick: "A few hundred."
"Try more than double that -- and by my estimate, about half your daily allotment for maintenance of a fit body weight, without even getting into lunch and dinner. Even if your remaining meals are exactly aligned with your energy needs, you're putting on a pound a week from your extra breakfast calories alone."
I quickly jotted down the figures on a pad and showed her. The numbers spoke for themselves.
Denise, like so many before her, looked at me with both disappointment and relief. We were only at breakfast, and already the entire day was out of alignment. Like most people who care about their health and fitness, Denise was smart and attuned, and she knew: If the problem starts first thing in the morning, it's a big-picture thing. It needs a big-picture solution.
Then we started to talk about miscounting calories. Denise was astonished to discover that she was typically taking in 800 calories at lunch, 1,000 at dinner, and 500 in snacks, adding up to a total of 3,050 calories per day. That was about 1,000 more than Denise needed to mantain her weight -- let alone lose some, as she was trying to do through her low-fat diet. After a good hard look at the numbers, Denise's analyticial mind led her to the inscapable conclusion: "I've got a portion problem."
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
Nearly everybody miscounts calories. Clinical researchers who study food consumption patterns have found that Americans routinely underestimate their daily caloric intake by as much as 25 percent! The most notorious underreporters are women and overweight people, suggesting a wishful-thinking component to this common behavior. Whether you run your daily numbers like a human calculator or just indulge in an occasional ballpark figure, chances are that you underestimate what you eat by up to 1,000 calories a day.
Food industry propaganda has eroded our portion sense with compelling catch phrases like "value meals," "all you can eat," "two for one," "jumbo," and "hearty." I recently bought a box of Cracker Jack at a Lakers basketball game and discovered that the one-ounce box of my youth has ballooned to eight ounces -- meaning that my beloved and once-reasonable 110-calorie snack now costs me 880 calories! Restaurant portions are getting bigger every day, with many meals racking up 2,000 calories or more. To add to the problem, Americans are dining out more and more. The more you eat these supersize servings, the more you come to expect them at every meal.
Meanwhile, the federal government's Food Guide Pyramid is a well-intentioned attempt to improve the proportions of our diet, but its recommended numbers of servings from each food group have only compounded the portion problem. The Food Guide's servings are just a fraction of the real-life sizes found in packages, on store shelves, and on plates in restaurants. For instance, after stating that you should eat a generous-sounding six to eleven servings of grains per day, the Guide clarifies that a single bagel counts as two servings -- and this is a two-ounce bagel, not the four-to five-ounce variety sold at most bakeries. In other words, eat a goverenment-sanctioned bagel and you've had two servings of grains, but stop at one of the new bagel chains and you'll rack up five -- and think you're eating only two. How is anyone supposed to know how much is enough?
It's the consumer who suffers in this behind-the-scenes battle over serving sizes. Einstein himself couldn't count correctly through all this conflicting information.
Evidence of the national miscount is all around us. One out of two Americans is now overweight, double the number of fifteen years ago. Three federal agencies -- the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Agriculture -- track the food intake and body weight of Americans, and recent reports from all three groups indicate that we eat more and weigh more every year.
Even as the proportion of fat in our diet declines -- dropping from 40 percent of daily calories in 1978 to 33 percent in 1996 -- the total number of daily calories that people eat continues to rise. Food is energy, and the energy value of our daily diet jumped by 100 to 300 calories per day for various age and sex groups between 1980 and 1991. By 1991, the average intake for all Americans over two months of age clocked in at a whopping 2,095 calories! Current national calorie statistics are still being gathered and analyzed, but my experience at Diet Designs is that most clients are eating much more than that.
It's not that we're eating more in order to run more marathons. With 40 percent of Americans currently not exercising at all, we are as sedentary as seems possible. Our food needs are actually shrinking as our intake grows.
Body weight has inevitably followed the same ascending path as the calories in our diets. Between 1986 and 1993, the average twenty-something American adult gained ten pounds, creeping up from 161 to 171 on the scale. At Diet Designs, I've found that people are just as likely to underestimate their weight as their caloric intake. Time after time, clients climb onto the scale for their initial weigh-in and exclaim, "What -- I thought I weighed less!"
The reason for this widespread fattening-up is clear: Calories are energy to the body. Unused energy -- no matter whether it comes from fat, protein, or carbohydrates -- is stored as body fat. The extra 100 to 300 daily calories we accumulated between 1980 and 1991 could add a pound to your body as quickly as every twelve days. Add it up over eleven years, and we were lucky to get away with that ten-pound weight gain; theoretically, it could have been 330 pounds per person!
Fortunately, a number of other variables have intervened to prevent us all from weighing in at 400-plus pounds -- but while there may be few other reasons to wish for a return to the seventies, I'd jump in a time machine if it could shave 300 calories off America's daily diet!
Our national obesity problem and its public health implications have become so dramatic that the federal government recently made headlines by issuing new, lower guidelines for healthy body weights. After decades of overindulgence, many Americans are shocked by the truth about what they should weigh for health and long life.
We're gaining weight as a nation because we're eating more energy than we expend. After more than a decade in nutritional practice and through dozens of diet fads, I've traced every client's problem, at base, back to portions. These are the phrases I hear:
- Late-night snacking.
- Afternoon depression.
- Sporadic schedules.
- Trigger foods.
- Feelings of fatigue.
- Fear of hunger striking before the next meal.
I've heard about every imaginable food-related dilemma from my clients. I listen, take notes -- but mostly, I just wait, because I know that each client holds a secret inside. I wait for each one to make the most important discovery: Everyone, no matter what his or her emotional issues are, ends up telling me, "I guess I just eat too much."
It's a simple truth, but for many people, it's painful. Admitting that they eat more than they need not only feels like confessing a personal weakness, but also conjures up a grim vision of a future of deprivation and complicated calorie-counting that will never feel natural or fun.
My job is to educate my clients by explaining that their oversize eating blueprint is not a shameful flaw, but the result of very functional learning skills -- and that those same learning abilities will help set them free from their battle with food. Once we've broken through the barrier of acknowledging the calorie miscount, the slate is cleared for a new picture, and at that point, here's what I tell my clients:
Most Americans are conditioned to overeat since birth.
From family patterns of presenting food as love, to those huge portions at restaurants, to the frenzied lifestyle that encourages a feast-or-famine attitude, our social and psychological surroundings have given us a mistaken message from the get-go: More food is better, even beyond the point of physical satiation. Well, more food is not better, and you can unlearn that message.
You're not weak or unintelligent for having learned this faulty lesson; in fact, your ability to learn and adapt has enabled you to learn this unhealthy habit. But the same skills you used to learn the wrong habits will help you learn the right ones. Applying your intelligence and your pattern recognition proficiency, which you use to establish repeated behaviors, you will become portion savvy.
Eating what's right for your body tastes and feels great.
If "going on a diet" has made you feel deprived in the past, prepare to reinvent your whole concept of what the word diet means. By matching your energy intake to your needs and giving you the tools to enjoy your favorite foods, portion savvy promises delicious meals, no hunger, and the natural vigor of good health. My clients repeatedly report that they feel the most satisfied -- and the most vital and healthy -- when they're eating Diet Designs food. When you get portion savvy, you'll have this experience every day.
"Thank God -- portion control!" exclaimed my client Caroline when she came in to pick up her Diet Designs food after the Christmas holiday break. During those two holiday weeks without our quantity guidelines, her intake had gotten out of sync with her needs. She noticed that her energy and sense of well-being had suffered as a result. But even more telling, Caroline told me she'd had a hard time feeling satisfied from the large portions she ate during the holiday season. Not knowing her portion boundaries prevented her from deriving the pleasure she was accustomed to from Diet Designs meals. Constantly second-guessing whether she was eating too much and would regret it later, she couldn't have any fun with the flavors and sensations of her food.
For most of my clients, portion savvy is the ultimate safety net. It's the soft landing that leaves them free to enjoy food to its fullest. If you like to eat and want to be fit, full of energy, and around for the long haul, then portion savvy is your ticket to ride.
You don't have to count calories to control them.
Just as you don't notice the letters once you learn to read, becoming portion savvy will free you from the numbers in your personal energy equation. Once you've completed your training, you'll know how to identify your portions at a glance:
- A four-ounce piece of chicken.
- A plate of pasta sized to your stomach.
- The glass of juice that will give you a good dose of antioxidants without adding up to half a day's calories.
Once you accept that your instinct to eat has been inflated by a lifetime of misfired messages, you can get smart. You can get portion savvy. You will take your oversize eating blueprint and replace those erroneous images with the right ones. Soon you'll be remembering your personal serving sizes on automatic pilot. As you painlessly acquire new habits, you'll be moving toward your ideal weight, enjoying incredible energy, and eating delicious food without worries or guilt.
Overeating has become a national health crisis and probably a personal crisis for you too. Portion savvy is a reeducation program to realign your mind and body with your diet and unlearn a lifetime of mistruths. I know that you can learn portion savvy because my clients do it all the time, painlessly and with lasting success.
My message as you ready your body and mind for an exciting new learning experience is a resounding "Yes!" You can -- and you will -- turn your portion problem into a new sense of portion perception that will bring you lifelong fitness and health.
Copyright © 1999 by Carrie Latt Wiatt
The 30-Day Smart Plan for Eating Well
The 30-Day Smart Plan for Eating Well
How can you reach your desired weight and stay off the diet roller coaster forever? The key is portion control. Portion-savvy men and women don't diet -- they manage food wisely by knowing their right-sized servings, a skill that "clicks in" every time they make a food choice. Let Carrie Wiatt retrain your eye, your appetite and your attitude -- you'll find yourself not only craving healthier foods, but feeling satisfied by smaller servings. And with the delicious and easy low-fat recipes that set the Portion Savvy plan in motion, you'll be creating healthy habits without even knowing it. You'll wonder why you ever ate any other way!