One Change Can Help You Salvage Your Spring Diet

Senior man on the doctor's scale

It's finally getting warmer. We're putting away those bulky jackets and sweaters, replacing them with more revealing warm-weather garb. Maybe we're shopping for a new swimsuit for an upcoming summer vacation.

But many of us receive an unpleasant April Fool's surprise when we hop on the scale, only to find that our New Year's resolution to lose some weight has once again failed. It's discouraging and we might be tempted to give up—which, research shows, can lead to even greater weight gain.

Looking better in our summer clothes isn't the top reason to maintain a healthy weight, of course. Being overweight increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and a number of other health conditions that are more common in our later years. And as we saw in the first article of this issue of Caring Right at Home, obesity in our older population could be called an epidemic.

Why is it harder for seniors—and people of every age—to maintain a healthy weight these days? Weight is influenced by genes and our individual metabolism, yet there's been an upward trend toward obesity during the past decades. Today's more sedentary lifestyle is a contributing factor. Some experts blame trans fats and added sweeteners in our food. But something else is happening, as well. We are eating a lot more.

Some pundits rail about overeating as a symptom of a more self-indulgent age. But according to researcher Dr. Gareth Hollands of the University of Cambridge in the UK, who recently published a study on food consumption, "In fact, the situation is far more complex. Our findings highlight the important role of environmental influences on food consumption. Helping people to avoid 'overserving' themselves or others with larger portions of food or drink by reducing their size, availability and appeal in shops, restaurants and in the home is likely to be a good way of helping lots of people to reduce their risk of overeating."

In the most comprehensive study of portion control to date, Dr. Hollands' team revealed that eliminating large-size portions and oversized tableware and serving utensils would help people in the United Kingdom cut back on food consumption by 16 percent. Not surprisingly, that number jumps to 29 percent for American diners! The results proved to be true for both men and women, as well as for people of every size.

The team called for public health efforts to reduce portion size. Said study co-author Ian Shemilt, "At the moment, it is all too easy—and often a better value for the money—for us to eat or drink too much. The evidence is compelling now that actions that reduce the size, availability and appeal of large servings can make a difference to the amounts people eat and drink."

How can we "reset" our portion sense? Check out portion control tutorials, such as this one from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Take a look at your dinnerware and serving utensils. Your dinner plates may well be the size of your grandmother's serving dishes! Use a food scale to get a sense of the true one-serving size of meats and other higher-calorie foods. And read labels; that can of chili you're about to have for dinner may be intended for two meals.

Restaurants are ground zero for portion creep.

Diet coaches tell us to avoid fast food when we're trying to lose weight. But regular sit-down restaurants also are falling under scrutiny these days, and the results are alarming. A January 2016 study from Tufts University took a look at large-chain restaurants and non-chain eateries, with cuisine ranging from American to Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Greek, Indian, Mexican, Thai and Vietnamese. The researchers found that 94 percent of restaurant meals exceeded the caloric requirements for a single meal! Indeed, about one-third of these meals exceeded a person's caloric requirements for a full day—and that didn't even include appetizers, beverages or dessert.

Why are portions so huge? William Masters, Ph.D., professor of food economics at Tufts, explains, "Standard meals are sized for the hungriest customers." He believes that restaurants should be required to offer smaller portion options at a lower cost.

Why don't we just stop when we're full? Said Tufts Human Nutrition Research Center researcher Susan B. Roberts, Ph.D., "Although in theory we don't have to eat the whole lot, in practice most of us don't have enough willpower to stop eating when we have had enough." She adds, "These findings make it clear that making healthy choices while eating out is difficult because the combination of tempting options and excessive portions often overwhelm our self-control."

Professor Ruopeng An of the University of Illinois concurs that restaurants can be a dietary disaster. He headed a research team that found that eating out—whether it's fast food or fine dining—significantly increases our intake of calories. Says An, "My advice to those hoping to consume a healthy diet and not overeat is that it is healthier to prepare your own foods, and to avoid eating outside the home whenever possible."

Do we really have to avoid our favorite eateries to maintain a healthy weight?

For many seniors, dining out is a favorite pleasure of life. It's an occasion to meet friends and family and enjoy a meal without work. Diners can avoid "portion spread" by recognizing a double challenge: We're tempted to eat everything in front of us because it's there, and we also want to get our money's worth. Here are five ways to overcome those twin temptations:

1. Think "doggie bag" even before you dig in. More restaurants today are perfectly happy to box up your leftovers to take home. Keep that in mind, and leave half of everything so your leftover meal will be a twin of the original when you pop the carton into the microwave the next day for a delicious and economic encore. In some casual eateries, you can even pick up or ask for the carton right away, and bisect your meal before you begin so you won't be tempted to go over the center line.

2. Order the smaller option. Restaurants serve large portions to please big eaters, but many also accommodate those who don't want to overdo it. You might order a senior meal, a child's meal (if the restaurant allows this), or in some cases, an appetizer-size of the same entrée. Some restaurants also offer varied sizes of a meal; always choose the smaller portion size, because "your eyes are bigger than your stomach" is usually true.

3. Avoid the buffet. When you're paying a flat price for all you can eat, with an array of delicious choices, it's pretty hard to stick to one modest plateful! If that's the only option, make yourself a big salad (without fattening toppings), then select small servings of a few other healthy dishes.

4. Resign from the clean plate club. If you can't take home your leftovers (and you shouldn't unless you can refrigerate them promptly), pace yourself, be aware of how your stomach feels, and stop before you feel stuffed. Seniors, in particular, hate to waste food, but remember that harming your health doesn't make it any better.

5. As you're rebooting your portion sense, ask if the restaurant offers nutritional information. That will help you gauge how much is really in a dish. As you grow accustomed to taking in a reasonable amount of food, it will become easier to judge.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.