Your food portions will change from meal to meal and from day to day.
While doing this, it’s important that you develop an understanding of what it is so that you can use those little insights about yourself to be more certain about how best to nourish your unique body.
Learning to listen to your body’s hunger and abundance signals in order to manage your eating habits is one of the most important skills in eating well. When you’re in tune with your hunger, you know what to eat, when to eat, and how big or small the food servings are to best support your body.
When you start using your hunger and fullness signals to eat, you may notice a different feeling:
- hungry again shortly after eating
- starve when you have dinner
- too full after eating
- You feel hungrier even if you eat the way you normally do
That’s because there are so many different factors that can affect how much you eat and sometimes these things can cause you to overeat or undereat.
Read on to see what to look for when choosing your portion sizes so that you can strengthen your ability to use your hunger and fullness as a guide.
Why your food portions can change
Keep this in mind as you check in with your hunger and determine what your food servings should be.
1. What you have already eaten (or have not eaten)
A common factor likely to affect your food servings is what you have or haven’t eaten.
For example, if you are intentionally or unintentionally malnourished throughout the day, it can leave your body feeling very hungry, which can lead to larger servings. Often times, those larger servings can lead to overeating because you’re just so starved.
If we undereat for a long period of time and then eat a really large amount of food because of the extraordinary hunger, it can lead to blood sugar spikes. This can make us feel less satisfied and satiated overall and continue the cycle.
On the other hand, let’s say you’ve had a substantial dinner and now you want to enjoy dessert. This portion of dessert is of course often a little smaller due to your sufficient intake at dinner.
Finally, think about the exact opposite situation. Suppose we have a very small dinner and then dessert. Chances are the portion sizes of this dessert will get bigger because our hunger indications were never entirely satisfied.
2. Activity levels
Our activity level can also affect our food servings.
On days when you are more active, you will likely find that you need a larger serving of food to support the level of activity you are participating in. To keep this in mind, aim for carbohydrates and healthy fats that will provide your body with the sustainable energy it needs, along with some protein that will help rebuild your muscle tissue.
If you notice that you are more active than usual, keep that in mind so you can make sure you adjust your servings to suit your needs.
However, when you are usually very active and resting or taking a break, your body doesn’t need that much food. So you should pay attention to how your hunger changes on your less active days.
3. Environmental triggers
A common factor that can inadvertently affect your serving size is environmental triggers. This is all around you that makes you want to eat something or eat a certain amount.
Some environmental triggers can be very supportive, such as: For example, a more nutritious selection of food at eye level in the refrigerator instead of tucking them into the drawers below. This can remind you to choose bigger servings of veggies and veggies as these are the focus.
However, some environmental triggers may not support the kind of eating habits that you would like to experience for yourself. For example, one of the members of our Mindful Nutrition Method ™ program noticed that she often ate chips or cookies in the afternoons. After some exploration, she found that this was because she always passed the office kitchen to go to meetings or refill her tea, and she just grabbed a snack because it was outside and available.
By observing your eating habits to determine when you may be affected by your surroundings, you can determine if and when this is affecting your portion sizes.
4. Stress level
Stress can affect your food servings in two different ways.
- Smaller portions
When stress initially occurs, your appetite will likely decrease because your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) puts your body in fight or flight mode in order to respond to the stressful situation. Your brain tells your adrenal glands to release adrenaline, which increases your heart rate and sends blood to your muscles and heart so you can take action and temporarily put your hunger on hold (1). When the stressful situation is over, your SNS will return to its baseline.
Unless you know that stress is suppressing your hunger, you may find that you are undereating. While we use our hunger signals to direct our food choices, it is important to recognize when those signals may not be working (i.e., due to stress), and still eat well.
- Bigger portions
The second way stress can affect your servings is when you suffer from chronic stress. When stress is not managed or alleviated, the SNS remains triggered and responds to that stress.
When this happens, your body releases cortisol, which is why it is often called a stress hormone. Unlike adrenaline, which can satisfy your hunger, cortisol can increase your appetite (2). If your stress response stays on, your cortisol levels can stay elevated.
If you suffer from this chronic stress, not only are you more likely to experience physical hunger, but you are also more likely to experience greater comfort or cravings for carbohydrates or sugary foods.
Sugar can release dopamine – the feel-good chemical that activates the brain’s pleasure centers (3).
This stressful eating can cause you to reach for larger servings of these foods.
5. Distracted or rushed eating
Distracted or rushed eating is just that – eating while distracted or rushing through a meal. This usually looks like eating in front of the TV, at your desk, scrolling social media, or anything else that is stopping you from sitting and enjoying your food.
When you’re distracted or rushed, it is much harder to use your hunger and fullness signals as a guide to eating. This can result in either eating more or less than your body needs because you are not paying attention to your body’s signals and are not attuned to them.
6. Lack of sleep can affect your food portions
Research has shown that poor quality sleep leads to increased cravings for processed or sugary foods, overeating throughout the day, and not eating as many fruits and vegetables.
Try to eat meals filled with protein and fat when you are tired so that you will have more energy throughout the day!
7. Your cycle
Almost 30 percent of pre-menopausal women are iron deficient (4). If you are a vegetarian, vegan, or have heavy menstrual flow, you are at higher risk of iron deficiency. In addition, menstruation alone lowers the amount of iron in your body (5).
Because of this, you may feel more tired during menstruation, which signals your body that it needs energy. Carbohydrates are the body’s fast-acting form of energy. So, you may find yourself craving high-carb foods or feeling like you need a larger serving to get this source of energy.
Make sure you eat plenty of iron-rich foods, especially during your menstrual cycle, to support your body’s needs and energy levels.
8. How hydrated you are
Water is responsible for every process in the body, including your metabolism. By drinking enough water each day, you will help your digestion keep moving while you support an efficient metabolism and much more (1) (2).
When you are dehydrated, you can be hungry when you are really thirsty. Stay hydrated to keep your hunger cues more accurate.
If you are hungry, drink 1 glass of water, wait 10-15 minutes and check your hunger. If you’re still hungry, you may be genuinely hungry, and when your hunger subsides, you can try drinking some more water to see if you are just thirsty.
How to strengthen your ability to find the right parts
Finding the right servings takes patience and practice. It requires the ability to tune into your body and figure out what physical hunger and abundance feels like to you, and then have the proper knowledge to use that information in a supportive way. This is what we support our members through the Mindful Nutrition Method ™ program.
You can register for our free workshop here where we will share an exercise that will help you better adjust to your unique hunger and abundance cues and guide you through our Mindful Nutrition Method ™.
- Pharmacology of appetite suppression: implication for the treatment of obesity. Halford JC. Curr Drug Targets. 2001;2: 353-370.
- Stress, Cortisol, and Other Appetite-Related Hormones: Prospective Prediction of 6 Month Changes in Cravings and Weight. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2017; 25 (4): 713- 720. doi: 10.1002 / oby.21790
- Rada P, Avena NM, Hoebel BG. Daily sugaring repeatedly releases dopamine in the Accumbens cup. Neuroscience. 2005; 134 (3): 737- 744. doi: 10.1016 / j.neuroscience.2005.04.043
- Camaschella, C. (2015). Iron deficiency anemia. N Engl J Med, 2015 (372), 1832-1843.
- R. Blanco-Rojo, L. Toxqui, AM López-Parra, C. Baeza-Richer, AM Pérez-Granados, E. Arroyo-Pardo & MP Vaquero (2014). Influence of Diet, Menstruation, and Genetic Factors on Iron Status: A Cross-Sectional Study of Spanish Women of Childbearing Age. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 15 (3), 4077-4087.