Portion Control Made Easy

Asparagus contains a hunger-spoiling fiber called oligofructose, so it's a great choice for an appetizer.

Portion control, or consciously limiting the size of your meals and snacks, is one of the most effective and reliable ways to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. A study published in Obesity Research found that portion control produced more weight loss in a pool of obese subjects than reduced fat intake, increased fruit and vegetable consumption, and increased exercise.

It's not just obese men and women who can benefit from eating smaller portions. Most of us, regardless of our size, eat more food than our grandparents did. In fact, research suggests that the average American male eats seven percent more calories per day now than he did in 1980, while the average American woman consumes 17 percent more calories daily.

Practicing portion control can be difficult, however. A study by Barbara Rolls, Ph.D., the author of Volumetrics, found that when subjects were served larger-than-normal portions for 11 days, they not only ate more during those 11 days, but they continued to eat more afterwards, on their own. It seems we get accustomed to overeating, and as a result we may feel hungry and deprived when we try to switch from excessive portions to normal-size portions.

Based on these facts, nutrition researchers have lately focused on developing strategies to enable people to eat smaller portions without feeling hungry and deprived. One very promising strategy that has emerged from these investigations is that of the hunger-spoiling appetizer. To understand how this strategy works, you must first understand something about how the body produces the feeling of satiety, or fullness.

Most people know intuitively that feelings of fullness are generated from the stomach. When you eat, your stomach distends, or stretches. The distension of your stomach stimulates the release of a protein called cholecystokinin, or CCK. When CCK is released, the first thing it does is to close down the valve from the stomach into the GI tract. This slows the movement of food from the stomach. The longer food stays in your stomach, the more full you feel. Because of its effects, CCK is sometimes referred to as the "feel-full" protein.

Not all foods are equal when it comes to stimulating CCK and thus producing fullness. Researchers such as Tanya Little, Ph.D., at the Department of Medicine at Hope Hospital in Manchester, United Kingdom, have found that particular types of proteins, protein fractions, fats and fibers have an especially powerful hunger-killing effect compared to other nutrients. "Our studies have demonstrated that a nutritional formulation containing these ingredients, marketed as Satiatrim, dramatically slows the movement of food through the stomach, acting as a sort of natural gastric pacemaker" says Little. "It achieves this effect by stimulating the release of a number of gut peptides, including cholecystokinin (CCK). The end result is that it enhances and extends satiety and reduces the amount of food consumed in a subsequent meal."

You can achieve a similar effect, although somewhat less efficiently, says Little, using regular foods. Just eat a small appetizer comprising foods that are rich in one or more of these filling nutrients before you eat a full meal. The appetizer will stimulate CCK, which will start to close the valve between your stomach and intestine before you dig into your main meal, causing food to stay in your stomach longer so you fill up faster. You could always force yourself to eat a normal-size meal after consuming such an appetizer, but the idea is to take advantage of your reduced hunger by practicing portion control.

So what are the best hunger-spoiling appetizers? They include low-fat dairy foods, which contain hunger-spoiling whey protein; soy-based foods, which contain hunger-spoiling protease enzymes; olive oil, avocados and macadamia nuts, which have high levels of hunger-spoiling oleic acid; and wheat, tomatoes and asparagus, which are rich in hunger-spoiling oligofructose (a type of fiber).

Here are a few suggested hunger-spoiling appetizers to help you practice portion control without hunger and feelings of deprivation:

  • Whole-wheat crackers with reduced-fat cheddar cheese
  • Edamame (steamed soy beans)
  • Garden salad with tomatoes, avocado and olive oil dressing
  • Miso soup
  • Glass of skim milk
  • Tomato soup
  • Steamed asparagus with olive oil dressing

Active Expert Matt Fitzgerald is a certified sports nutritionist and the author of several books on triathlon and running, including Runner's World Performance Nutrition for Runners (Rodale, 2005).

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