I met nutrition expert Lisa Young years ago, sometime after I read her fascinating book The Portion Teller: Smartsize Your Way to Permanent Weight Loss. I can’t remember how I finally ended up meeting her in person, but now I get to run into her occasionally, because we go to the same gym. (Very appropriate, given our mutual preoccupations.)
Much of her work is about habits related to portion size, so I was very curious to hear what she had to say.
For my book on habit-formation, Better Than Before, I’ve identified 21 strategies we can use to shape our habits. One of the most powerful of the strategies is the Strategy of Monitoring. As Lisa points out, portion control is a key to understanding how we’re actually eating—and to changing how we’re eating, if we want to.
Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research on an aspect of habits—portion control. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded? What aspects of these habits would be most helpful for people to understand?
Lisa: The more you are served, the more you will eat. And you will not even think about it or realize it. We can rattle off what we eat but we pay no attention to how much.
Therefore, try to prepare yourself in advance—for example, try to avoid buying jumbo bag of chips, cereal, or other edible foods (jumbo toilet paper is ok). You will eat more without realizing it. If you do, for some reason buy huge bags, (usually because they are cheaper and we love a good bargain), pre-portion foods in advance or keep handy “props” around: portion out pretzels or chips in ziploc baggies, keep a handy measuring cup around to measure your cereal.
What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?
Doing yoga or getting in a swim. And, of course seeing Gretchen at the gym. 🙂
What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
I think that as an 18 year old, we think we have to cut out entire foods or food groups to be healthy. I now know that I can eat all foods.
The trick is to eat healthy at least 80% of the time. We do not have to be perfect 100% of the time. [I think this works for Moderators, but not for Abstainers. Lisa is definitely a Moderator!]
Which habits are most important to you? (for heath, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)
Getting in my exercise routine and doing something I enjoy (swimming or yoga, for me), listening to calming music when home, including some protein and fiber in the morning—ie: a Greek yogurt with fresh fruit and not starting my day with pure carbs ( ie, a bagel or muffin), connecting with a close friend or family member.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I grew up in a house where my family—mom and grandmother—did not know of portion control. Perhaps because I have spent my life researching portions, it has become an ingrained habit. I can eat all foods, I just pay attention and know when to stop and can recognize when a portion is too big.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)
No—because I have developed healthy food and exercise habits, being healthy has become second nature.
It is natural to overeat occasionally at a party, but I do not let it bother me if I do, as instead of feeling guilty the next day, I go back right to eating healthy. I think the key is to prepare yourself for slight changes in your routine when you travel or go to a party.
Do you embrace habits or resist them?
I embrace them. I think it can give me a sense of calm and structure.
Any last thoughts?
When it comes to weight loss and portion sizes, just becoming more aware of HOW MUCH you are eating is half the battle. In particular, it is important to be mindful and pay attention to how much you are eating of foods that we tend to overeat—grains/starches, desserts. When it comes to fruits and veggies, however, you do not have to be so strict and it is ok to eat more. No one got fat eating too many carrots or bananas.
When asked, what kind of sandwich isn’t fattening, the answer is a half sandwich! Keep this in mind. It pertains to all foods.