Serving size is a head game

It’s no wonder many people find it hard to understand the serving sizes specified on food labels.

Are the labels telling us what an average serving size is supposed to be? Or is the amount specified purely arbitrary, or even engineered to make a food look healthier than it would be if consumed in “real-world” portions?

Even more mysterious are the reasons why we don’t do a better job choosing the right serving sizes for our bodies when we’re putting food on our plates.

The body is a precise machine. It knows exactly what to do with the food we put into it. If we’re eating more than we’re using, it stores the rest. If we’re eating too little, it consumes stored energy. It’s ingenious, really, and we should be grateful for that.

So, “Why do I serve myself more food than I need?” Unfortunately, the mind is not as precise as the body. The mind can be fooled by signals in the environment, such as the mountains of appetising foods on buffets.

There are many factors involved in a person’s appetite that can lead overserving. It’s not a simple matter of willpower. But once you know what kinds of things influence you to reach for more food than you need, you will be better able to zero in on the culprits and start giving your body more of what it actually needs instead of what you think it needs.

Here are some factors that can influence you to reach for larger portions than your body needs:

- Family history: Perhaps while growing up you saw family members piling the food on their plates. So you think that’s normal. To serve yourself smaller portions than your family did might make you feel deprived and leave you wanting more. Food habits learned at an early age can explain why you serve yourself too much today.

- Societal norms: Portions shown on advertisements and served in restaurants have increased in size tremendously through the years. Every time we’re shown or served larger portions than our body needs, it influences what we, as a society, consider normal portions.

- Mood: Of course food makes us feel good. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t eat and we wouldn’t thrive. So, when we’re having emotional difficulties (such as stress, depression, loneliness or anxiety), we might tend to look for comfort in all the wrong places. Naturally, we choose rich comfort foods, not cellery sticks. Seeking comfort in food can easily lead to choosing larger portions.

- Size: People can easily fool themselves into thinking that they’re serving themselves the proper amount because they’re eating foods that are small in size. For example, nuts pack a lot of calories into a small package. You might grab a handful thinking it’s a small portion when it actually isn’t. More concerning are highly processed foods that are also small and have little nutrition.

- Fill factor: Many people end up eating larger portions, because they tend to eat foods that are low in fibre. They learn through experience that just one doughnut, for example, isn’t going to give them a full feelling, so they grab more than one.

- Hunger levels: Letting your hunger become ravenous is a no-win situation. Even the best of us can’t fight the drive to eat larger amounts when we allow hunger to get to an extreme.