According to UK government data, around 28% of adults in England are obese, and a further 36% are overweight.
If you’re struggling to lose or maintain a healthy weight, eating a balanced diet isn’t always the full story. Studies show that people have a tendency to eat everything they serve themselves, so increased portion sizes can play a significant role in overeating.
Results from the British Heart Foundation show that UK portion sizes have jumped massively since the 90s – with an average individual chicken pie increasing 40% in size, for example.
With this in mind, here are nine tips to help you control portion sizes and avoid overeating – both at home and on the go.
1. Begin all of your meals with a glass of water
Drinking a glass of water up to 30 minutes prior to eating can naturally encourage portion control. Remaining well hydrated can not only help you to distinguish between thirst and hunger signals – it can leave you feeling more full too.
This study found that when overweight or obese adults drank 500ml of water half an hour before eating a meal, they ate 13% less calories without intentionally trying to make any changes.
In addition, this study of mature adults showed that drinking 500ml of water before each meal helped the participants achieve a 44% greater weight loss results over a period of 12 weeks.
If you struggle to stay hydrated throughout the day, check out these 12 simple ways to drink more water from Healthline. From using a reusable water bottle to flavouring your water, these tips can easily be incorporated into everyday life.
2. Make an effort to eat slowly
Research shows that the brain takes around 20 minutes to register that you’re full after eating, so slowing down can help to prevent overeating.
In this study of healthy women, participants noted that eating slowly led to increased feelings of fullness – even though they ate less- compared to eating quickly. Even better, the women who ate slowly noted that they enjoyed their meals more.
If you struggle to eat slowly, health experts recommend taking smaller bites and focusing on chewing every mouthful at least five or six times before swallowing your food.
For more tips, you might find these six strategies to eat slower from Psychology Today useful.
3. Eat a high protein diet
Of the three main macronutrients – carbs, fats, and protein – research has shown that protein is by far the most filling. This is partly because it reduces the hunger hormone ghrelin and can help you to feel fuller with less food.
For example, in this study, increasing overweight women’s daily calorie intake of protein from 15% to 30% resulted in them eating 441 fewer calories each day, without intentionally restricting anything.
If you struggle with unnecessary snacking, science has shown that a high protein diet can reduce hunger and cravings. For example, this study found that when protein made up 25% of the daily calories of overweight men, their cravings reduced by 60%.
For more tips on how to up your protein intake – including recommended portion sizes and recipe inspiration – check out our article; 12 high-protein meal ideas.
4. Avoid using oversized dinnerware
Research has revealed that the size of our plates, glasses, and cutlery can subconsciously influence how much we eat.
For instance, in this study, those who ate using a large bowl ate 77% more pasta than those who used a medium-sized bowl.
In another study, people served themselves 31% more ice cream when handed larger bowls, and 14.5% more when serving with larger spoons. Plus, a follow up revealed that the majority of people who’d eaten more as a result of using large dishes, were completely unaware of the change in portion size.
Research has also shown that using tall, thin glasses instead of short, wide ones can reduce the amount of liquids you pour yourself by up to 57%.
Therefore, swapping any large dinnerware that you usually use for slightly smaller versions can help to reduce the chance of subconscious overeating.
5. Increase meal volume with plenty of fruit and vegetables
Increasing the amount you eat in a way that doesn’t compromise calorie intake is a great way to fill you up and trick your brain into thinking you’ve eaten more.
In this study, participants were served two smoothies identical in calories – the only difference was that one had air added to it. Participants who drank the larger-volume smoothie reported feeling fuller and ate 12% less at their next meal.
A great way to add volume to your meals without upping the calorie content too much is to include high-fibre low-calorie foods – such as fruit and vegetables.
The extra fibre and water from fruit and veg add volume to meals, which stretches your stomach and leaves you feeling fuller. Research has shown that fibre can also stimulate the release of hormones that make you feel satisfied after eating.
As a general rule of thumb, experts recommend filling at least half of your plate with vegetables at each meal. For example, you could consider swapping in mushrooms for half the amount of ground meat in a cottage pie, or bulking out your morning oatmeal by adding in diced apple.
For more inspiration, check out these volume-eating recipes from Eating Bird Food. From zucchini noodle pad thai cauliflower tabbouleh and smoothie bowls, these delicious recipes will leave you feeling fuller for much longer.
6. Try mindful eating and limit distractions
Mindful eating is a technique that can help people gain control over their eating habits. It involves taking time to fully engage in the experience of eating – noticing things such as the texture, flavour, smell, and colour of your food – without distraction.
By encouraging greater awareness of the food that you’re consuming, and helping you tune into cravings and physical hunger cues, mindful eating has been shown to promote weight loss and reduce binge eating.
For example, this six-week seminar on mindful eating among obese adults resulted in an average weight loss of 4kg during the seminar and 12-week follow up period.
A large part of mindful eating involves eating without distraction – something that science has revealed can have a dramatic impact on overeating. Some of the biggest distractions include eating in front of the television, reading while eating, and scrolling through your phone at meal times.
For example, this study found that people who watched television while eating their meals ate 36% more pizza and 71% more macaroni cheese. Another study highlighted that the length of distractions can also have an effect; with participants who watched an hour-long programme eating 28% more popcorn than those who watched a 30-minute programme.
7. Avoid eating from family-size packs
Eating from family size share packs or large containers can encourage overeating because people have less awareness over portion sizes.
The majority of us probably have our own experience of this, but research has also shown that we’re much more likely to eat extra food out of large packages than small ones, regardless of the taste or quality.
For instance, in this study, participants ate 129% more sweets when they were served from a large container than a small one.
In another study, people ate 180g less in snacks per week when they had snack-size packs to hand instead of larger standard-size packs.
Even more compelling is that studies on increased portion size from the British Heart Foundation show the average size of a family bag of crisps has grown by around 50% since the 90s.
Tips like emptying a desired amount of snacks into a separate bowl, or buying smaller multi-packs can help prevent eating more than you plan to.
8. Beware of overeating foods branded as ‘healthy’
As a result of clever marketing, food labelled as ‘healthy’ can sometimes lead people to overeat.
‘Low-fat’ products are a prime example of this – because lower fat doesn’t necessarily mean lower calories too. Nevertheless, these labels tend to mislead customers, who think they can eat much more of these products without consequences.
For example, low-fat granola tends to have only 10% fewer calories than regular-fat granola. But, participants in this study who were given granola labelled as ‘low-fat’ ate 49% more granola than those given regular granola.
In addition, this study examined the calorie intake of participants eating at McDonalds and Subway (a fast-food sandwich chain typically marketed as ‘healthier’). Those who ate at McDonalds ate 25% more calories than they thought, while those who ate at Subway ate 34% more than they thought.
It was also noted that Subways diners were more likely to reward themselves for their ‘healthier’ choice by ordering chips or cookies with their meal.
Being aware of these patterns can help you to remain mindful about which items you consume – and how much. A useful tip is to pick foods based on their ingredients rather than their marketing claims. For more help, check out these 14 ‘health foods’ that may not be as nutritious as you thought from Healthline.
9. Keep some foods out of sight
Experts have found that the popular saying ‘out of sight, out of mind’ rings particularly true when it comes to overeating.
Seeing food in front of you automatically puts you in the position of having to decide whether or not you want to eat it. And science has revealed that the more often you see it, the more likely you are to eat it.
In this study, participants were given chocolate in bowls that were either clear or opaque. Those with clear bowls opened them to eat the chocolate 71% more often than those with opaque bowls; consuming on average an extra 77 calories per day.
Placing snacks in less easy-to-reach places has also been shown to help manage the temptation of grabbing a handful everytime you’re nearby.
For example, in this study, clear bowls of confectionery were placed in three different spots throughout the participants’ office: on their desk, in a desk drawer, and six feet away from their desk.
Results showed that people ate an average of nine extra sweets a day when the bowl was on their desk, six when the bowl was in their drawer, and only four when they had to walk to get the bowl.
Alternatively, if these methods aren’t working for you, consider avoiding bulk buying. In this study, those who received double the amount of snacks per week ate 81% more calories than those who received a normal quantity. Therefore, buying only what you need during your weekly shop can be another useful tip to prevent overeating.
With the readiness of snacks and oversized portions these days, it can be incredibly easy to overeat.
But the good news is that becoming aware of common triggers that can cause overeating and making a few small tweaks to help manage these, can go a long way in maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle.
For more tips and tricks, you might want to head over to the diet and nutrition section of our website. Here you’ll find everything from essential vitamin and mineral guides to quick and simple diet swaps.
Which tips and tricks help you to portion control and avoid overeating? We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation on the health section of the Rest Less community forum, or leave a comment below.