Portion Distortion.

I had a few readers comment recently asking me about the size of my portions.  To be honest, I’m surprised it took this long.  Pictures don’t lie – I eat a LOT!

I thought it might be helpful for me to show you some examples of how I put plates together, and the way I decide how much or how little of something I’m going to have.  Now keep in mind, this is the way I do it – it’s not right or wrong, it’s what works for me.  I am not an “everything in moderation” kind of eater.  It sounds great and all if you can do it, but for me it’s just not that simple.  Let’s dive in.

I tend to equate my personal “food rules” to something similar to a traffic light:

  • Healthy and low calorie = eat your heart out
  • Healthy but high calorie = moderation (pretend this is yellow!)
  • Not healthy = don’t eat it

(This is  most similar to the Volumetrics Diet concept, although I don’t follow any specific counts or rules.  I just read the book once and like the concept!)

The first thing we need to do is differentiate between healthy and low-calorie.  Some healthy things are high calorie (olive oil, dried fruit, nuts, seeds, rice).  And not all low calorie things are healthy (diet soda, 100 calorie snack packs).  Some things are both (vegetables, spices).  And no one ever ate too many vegetables.

The second thing to consider is counting calories.  I’ve talked about this before.  I don’t literally count my daily calories anymore, but if you forced me to pick between “yes I do” and “no I don’t” – I’d probably have to learn towards Team Yes.  After a full year of diligent calorie logging, measuring, and counting, I can pretty much tell you the nutritional value of every grain, vegetable, bean, you name it in the grocery store.  I don’t need to write it down anymore – it’s all in my head.

I try to maintain a continuously satisfying balance between the number in my head and the hunger in my belly. Usually for me, that means around 1,500 calories per day.  That is a NET average – I’m not talking about workouts here.  This usually breaks down to about 400 calories at breakfast, 300 calories at lunch, a possible snack, and then 600ish calories at dinner.

Breakfast is BIG at our house.  I literally jump out of bed to the singing of my rice cooker, announcing that steel cut oats are ready and waiting for me!  When I put together my breakfasts, I take into consideration the base calories in the oatmeal (225 – I eat 1.5 servings), and then I decide which toppings to throw on from there.  I’ve done this long enough now that I don’t really even add the numbers up.  I just know that if I’m adding a banana, I probably don’t need as many raisins.  Or if I’m using real peanut butter instead of PB2, I only need half of the amount.  It’s easy to want to throw every topping in my cabinet into the bowl, but I know that they will all still be waiting there tomorrow.

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Breakfast is kind of simple – big bowl of oats, every single day.  If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.  Let’s move on to lunch.

Lunch for me is tricky, and it’s hard for me to give advice on lunch portions and options because my own lunches are so situation specific.  I eat breakfast at 5:30am most days, and I race around on my feet in the culinary labs all day long.  Eating the food at school is not an option for me (but that’s another post), so I typically wait until I get home from school to make my lunch – usually close to 2pm.  That is a LONG time to be hungry and constantly on the move, which brings me back to the GIANT bowl of oatmeal.

For lunch, I am usually tempted to eat something really carb-heavy because that just tends to be what I crave.  I’ve tried to break myself of eating so much granola, bread, cereal, etc. (and the gluten-free month is helping with that!).  Now I usually look to have a balance of a little bit of bread with fruit, and soup or a salad.

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For yesterday’s lunch, I managed to eat vegetables (peppers), carbs (gluten free bread), dairy (Laughing Cow cheese), fruit (apple), and protein (peanut butter) – all in ONE meal!  Seems like a lot of food for one person, but they key thing to remember is the calorie density.  The only higher calorie items were the peanut butter and the bread – everything else (to me) is a freebie.

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Let’s get to the main event – dinner.  This seems to be the area of most interest anyways.  As I stated above, when I think about the total calories and nutrient density of my plate – non-starchy vegetables are obsolete.  Yes, vegetables have calories, and some more than others (potato vs. green bean), but in a diet like mine, they just don’t add up.  The only vegetables that I really every watch my portions of are potatoes.  The rest is fair game.

Once I figure out which vegetables we are using in our meal, I typically base the rest of the meal around those ingredients.  I’ve talked about balancing a nutritionally dense plate before too.  Think back to the stoplight for a minute:

Vegetables = GO!

Carbs (grains, bread, buns), Fats (oils, nuts, avocado), and Proteins (tofu, beans, lentils, peanut butter) = Pick one or two – just not all of them!

Overly processed food (long lists of ingredients), empty calories (chips, crackers, boxed foods), and most baked goods = Not worth it.

A typical plate for me might look like this…

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About 2/3 of the plate is vegetables – broccoli and eggplant.  The other 1/3 is a combination of rice and beans – probably 1.5 cups rice and 1/2 cup of beans.  Sounds like a LOT, right?  Well for some people it probably is a lot.  But figure this much:  1.5 cups rice = 300 calories, 1/2 cup beans = 100 calories, so I’m only up to 400 calories so far.  Add on a pile of broccoli and eggplant, and I’m maybe up to 500?  On an average day, I aim for 600, so even with all that food I still have some wiggle room.

Here’s another plate – heavy on the rice this time, because the entire other side of the plate is a mixture of vegetables and light tofu.  Do you see what I mean by looking at the calorie density of the foods that I choose?  If I’m only eating one higher calorie (healthy) item, I can afford to eat more of it, since the rest of my plate is so low in calories.


Now here is an example where choices come into the equation.  Two different dinners, two lazy veggie burger nights.  On the left, I had two open faced veggie burgers (100 calories each) on an open faced English muffin (another 100 calories).  But on the right, we were having rice as a side item, so I did without the buns.  I balanced the calorie density, and at the same time I made sure I wasn’t overloading on one nutrient

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And finally, a look at pasta.  I really don’t eat much pasta because I don’t’ really like it enough to justify the higher calories and smaller portions.  I usually choose grains over pasta.  But Casey is a big pasta fan, so when I do make it, I usually do what I do best – load up on veggies, and fill the smaller portion of my plate with the pasta.  Spaghetti squash is a great way to trick your mind into thinking you are heaving a heaping bowl of noodles!

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I’ve had readers ask about portion control when it comes to snack foods and desserts.  To be really honest, I’m not all that tempted by these.  Now I’m not insane, I definitely think that they taste good.  Sometimes really good!  But I have also found that they way I feel after over-indulging or eating too much sugar, will never outweigh how good I feel when I fit into my skinny jeans or feel confident on the beach.

I know what it feels like to weigh 30 more pounds than I do now, and I know that I never want to feel that way again.  When I feel tempted by certain things, I always think about the choice (30 seconds of tasting) vs. the consequence (how many miles I would need to run to burn it off).  As I’ve mentioned so many times now, I like to eat a LOT!  So I would much rather eat a BIG bowl of frozen blueberries and almond milk (green light!), than a teeny tiny 1/2 cup serving of ice cream.

I hope that this helps clear up the mystery of my ginormous meals!  :)  It’s not a perfect system, but it has worked for me for about 2 years now, and it gives me the right balance of nutrients that I need to maintain my weight, fuel my workouts, and enjoy each and every plate.

I’ve been asked before if I feel like I am missing out on any particular foods (animal products), or “depriving myself” of certain things (like sweets).  I don’t have time to worry about what I don’t eat – I am usually too caught up in the excitement of all that I do eat.  Rather than sit and complain about being stuck at the red lights, I choose to live life flying through the green.