health

"As a dietitian, I don’t like meal plans or portion control. Here's why."

Twenty-three almonds. Two cheese slices. Half a cup of pasta. Twenty-one grapes. 

A virtuous way of eating, or a gazillion reasons to have an untrusting relationship with food? 

Portion control. It’s something we’ve been taught. A system that can help us eat correctly. A way to lose weight. A means for exercising willpower. 

But the clue to its insidious inflicted misery is in the second half of the name: Control.

Watch: Apparently 6 fries is the perfect portion of chips, and excuse us? Post continues below.


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Portion control creates shame and guilt about what we eat. It makes food a moral issue. It generates stress and takes up a lot of mental energy. How can you build a meaningful life when you’re busy counting almonds in the name of achieving the 'correct' body?

As a dietitian, I don’t like meal plans and I don’t like portion control.

Here’s why. 

Rather than tools for healthy eating, they’re part of diet culture and the pervasive way of thinking about body size that deifies thin bodies and sidelines anyone with a soft tummy, or thighs that touch. 

It assumes that eating in a certain way - for example, controlling your portions - will result in you achieving the 'correct' body. That is, if you have the willpower to stick with it - and that’s where the guilt comes in.

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Science lesson: Serving sizes are different from portion size - and that's different from what your body actually needs. How could one 'portion size' be nutritionally appropriate for both a 6'5 body builder and a 19-year-old teenage girl? They can't. 

Plus, serving size is dictated by food companies. If you've ever measured out an actual suggested serving of cereal or noticed that one chocolate bar supposedly contains 2.5 servings, you'll know it's simply an unhelpful suggestion. 

I get it. Following rules is easy, in theory.

It does the thinking and decision making for you. But eating according to your hunger is far more accurate than eating a set portion size. 

The sole purpose of hunger is to help your body consume the right amount of energy for your body, not someone else’s. It’s not a punishment for being 'bad', or an indicator that you’re being 'good.' That’s diet culture messing with your brain.

And lots of things impact how much energy you need on any given day, including how you slept and the weather. 

Some days you burn more energy, other days less.

Predicting how many calories you need isn't nearly as accurate as tuning into your internal 'energy calculator' - which is your hunger system. 

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In other words, there’s no need for portion sizes or food rules. We simply need to tune back into what our bodies are trying to communicate. 

Here’s the thing. When you are physically or emotionally hungry - and eat something that you’re truly hungry for - you will feel satisfied and content.

What about when all you’ve wanted is two Tim Tams? But you’ve relegated them to the ‘bad’ food category?

So, you virtuously make yourself two Medjool dates with peanut butter instead. You eat them. But there’s still that Tim Tam niggle. So you go back to the fridge and grab some yoghurt. Ooft. But those chilled Tim Tams look good. 

So you have a bliss ball. Just the one. Eventually, you eat the Tim Tams, too. But by now you’ve had four different snacks and a whole lot of extra energy, than if you had the Tim Tams in the first place. 

When you eat something because you think you should, you end up feeling deprived and disappointed. Or with our Tim Tam analogy, you’re ashamed because you end up eating the thing you really wanted, anyway. 

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Where there’s food restriction, there’s almost always a loss of control.

It’s one of the many lessons I’ve learnt professionally as an accredited dietitian, and personally as a former binge eater. The lessons have inspired me to found my app Back to Basics and Keep It Real, an online program to end emotional and binge eating for good. 

You see, I went on my first diet age 11 and was dieting monogamously for pretty much a decade - faithful to deprivation and what I thought was self-control. It led to binge eating. 

Listen: Mamamia Out Loud discuss the cult of Ashy Bines and fit-shaming.  Post continues below.

I’d been taught that my body size was a sign of a self-control problem and that I simply didn’t have the discipline to control my appetite. If I could just control myself, I’d start living the life I’m meant to. 

What actually helped that happen was finally quitting the command that diets and food rules - like portion control - had on me, leaving toxic diet culture behind and pursuing actual health. 

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So, next time you find yourself considering counting out those grapes, or macros, don’t. Use that energy for making, then counting happy memories, instead. 

Dietitian and best-selling author Lyndi Cohen would rather count happy memories than almonds. As the founder of the  Back to Basics App and Keep It Real, an online program for ending binge and emotional eating, Lyndi offers serviceable expert advice without the wellness wankery. 

She also has a loyal Instagram following @nude_nutritionist where she regularly serves up Photoshop-free body love, recipes, health tips and more. 

Feature image: Supplied

What are your thoughts? Are you a fan of portion control? Share with us in the comment section below.

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