How Much Should I Eat? A few thoughts on portion control…

by Sirena Bernal, *LTD Contributor

As beautiful and unique individuals as we each are, so are our metabolisms and our body’s ability to digest, breakdown and utilize foods.

No two people are the same, and thus no two metabolisms are the same. However, most diet and nutrition literature will lead you to believe that a standard formula can be used to accurately gauge the amount of food we need to consume.

Factors such as the weather, temperature, stress levels, amount of sleep, hormonal fluctuations, prescription medications, supplements, thought-patterns and travel can all affect our body’s ability to metabolize food. Thus, focusing on tracking calories without considering the dynamic flux of our metabolism can further create a hypometabolic state (low metabolism).

So when I get asked, “How much should I eat?”, it’s never a clear cut answer since every client is unique and presents themselves at various levels of healing. It can be frustrating at times for clients when I give them the, “Just listen to your body” schpeel. People take that and interpret it all kinds of ways.

What I’ve observed with coaching clients, is that some of us are just sooooooo out of tune with our own body that it’s difficult to decipher just how much is enough. The whole point of having a coach is to provide some guidance to get the ball rolling, and then like taking the training wheels off, get to a point where you can set the client off on their own. This is what I aim to do with the guidelines you’ll find below.

If we allow it, our body will tell us exactly how much food we need, what we need, and when we need it, if we only listen. Developing this skill does take time and patience but once we learn to listen to our body, we will begin to find this process much easier.

Each person requires different amounts of protein, fats and carbohydrates in order to maintain and create life. Part of the process is figuring out which combinations are best for you. Do you feel better on a higher ratio of protein and fat compared to carbs? Or do you function better when you have slightly more carbs than fat/protein? These are some questions to ask yourself.

The idea is not to get too caught up with the details and the amounts. Your first step is to just stick to the foods on the menu provided during your coaching, and pay attention to how you are feeling after you eat a meal. This is a more intuitive approach to eating and one that breaks you free of measuring, counting and obsessing over food. Again, this process does take time, so to get you started, here are some guidelines:

17 Tips to Intuitive Eating

1. When filling your plate fill about 80% of what you would normally fill. Our eyes are generally bigger than our stomachs, so prevent over eating before you actually eat.

2. When eating, stop when you are 80% “full”. Take a few moments to ask yourself if you are really hungry or if you are just eating to eat.

3. Always eat a protein, a carb and a fat source together. This will help balance your hormonal response to your meal, keeping you blood sugars balanced which will keep you satiated longer.

4. With protein sources, start with 4-8 oz. for meals and 2-4 oz. for snacks and build up or down from there.

5. With carbs, start with 1-2 serving per meal and then build up or down from there.  Here are some examples of 1 serving:

  • 1 medium pear, apple, orange, banana, etc.
  • 1 cup of berries
  • 1 medium sweet potato/regular potato
  • 1 cup of brocolli, asparagus, zuchinni, squash, carrots, etc
  • Handful or ¼ cup of nuts (sparingly, this should not be a main source of protein)
  • ½ cup cooked brown rice, oatmeal or quinoa

6. For fat sources, include 1-2 servings of fat with the meal depending on the fat content of the protein source.  The more fat on the protein source, the less fat you’ll need to include.

  • 1 tbs of coconut oil
  • ½ avocado
  • 1 full egg
  • 1 tbs. of grass-fed butter (if you can tolerate dairy)

7. When cooking, use 1 tbs. of oil to start then build up from there (coconut oil or olive oil)

8. A well-balanced meal should leave you satiatied, and in a happy mood. Watch for any negative physical, emotional, or mental changes that may indicate that the meal ratios may not have been the best for you. Some signs that the meal may not have been ideal for you include:

  • Hunger or carb cravings immediately after eating
  • Anxiety
  • Sluggishness/tiredness
  • Sadness
  • Lack of focus or inability to concentrate
  • Insomnia or waking up in the middle of the night (see note below about this in more detail)

9. If you are finding that you wake up in the middle of the night, chances are your blood sugar has dipped too low and your body responded with an adrenaline kick to boost your blood sugar levels, which caused you to wake up.  If this happens, try eating a smaller meal/snack right before bed time.

10. An optimal meal for your body should leave you satiated for 3-4 hours.  If you find that you are hungry before this, drink a glass of water, wait 10 minutes and ask yourself if you are really still hungry.  If your answer is yes, eat a smaller meal or snack to hold you over.

11. Keep in mind, the more active you are, the more food you’ll need.  Meaning on days you workout, you will need more food.

12. Begin with eating smaller meals more frequently, and notice how you feel throughout the day, like eating 4-5 times.  As your metabolism heals, you may find that you do better with bigger meals less frequently, or that you perform better eating smaller meals more frequently.  I find that having a starting point is the best way to gauge how you feel and then building up or down from there, which is why I recommend to start with 4-5 meals per day, spaced 3-4 hours apart.

13. Eat in peace and not on the run and without the distraction of computers, t.v. or reading which will help slow you down and bring your focus to how the food is making you feel.  The digestion process stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, which is your calming and restful branch of your nervous system.  Watching t.v. or eating on the run will activate your sympathetic nervous system which stimulates your stress hormones thus shutting down the digestion process.

14. Chew your food thoroughly before swallowing and take your time with eating, putting your fork down between bites.

15. Be completely present when you are eating.  I find that paying attention to your breath patterns while eating helps you do this.  Try not to hold your breath while chewing, but rather, continue to breath in, and breath out, in slow and controlled breaths.  Slow and controlled breathing also stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which will aide in digestion.  While doing this, see if you can actually taste the various flavors in your food, and sense the different textures. Actually think about the food you are eating, while you are eating it.

16. Take twice as long as you normally would eat to complete your meal.  Meaning, if it generally takes you 10 minutes to eat breakfast, give yourself 20 from start to finish.

17. Begin tracking your food and your moods and sensations afterwards so that you can fine-tune your diet.  Although I do not push counting calories, I do highly suggest taking notes on how you are feeling after a meal.  This is where the art of experimentation comes into the picture.  Play around with various meal combinations and take note on how you feel in a journal or in a word document. Here are some ideas to get you started with experimentation:

  • Eat a bigger breakfast, and taper your meals as the days go on.
  • Eat a smaller breakfast, and bigger meals as the days go on.
  • Eat your biggest meal at lunch with smaller meals at the beginning and end of the day.
  • Eat more carbs at the beginning of the day.
  • Eat less carbs at the beginning of the day.
  • Eat the majority of your carbs in the middle of the day.

The idea of intuitive eating is a bit more abstract than what most people are used to.  We have become so accustomed to tracking points and counting calories that we often neglect the natural signs our body tells us when we’ve had enough, and if we have eaten an optimal meal.

The idea behind this process is to get you to a point where you can begin to listen to these cues so that you do not remain shackled to the compulsive nature of calorie counting.  This process does take more time and commitment on your part, but is very liberating and rewarding when you begin to tune in and know exactly what you need, when you need it, and how much you need.

Written by Boston-based Nutrition and Lifestyle Coach, Sirena Bernal