Recalibrating Your Portions: The 50 Percent Solution

Portion Control Made Twice as Easy

If, as one critic commented on my first book, French Women Don’t Get Fat, it’s “all about portion size”—it’s not, really, but if—then change is indeed a tall order. It’s generally known that Americans on average eat 10 to 30 percent more than we need to every day. This is not such a surprising result of an increasingly knowledge-based economy, in which the jobs of many individuals involve sitting all day. It is simple deductive reasoning to connect this situation with the fact that Americans are also on average 30 percent above their ideal weight. It was a sixteenth-century Frenchman, Montaigne, who rightly observed that gluttony is the source of all our infirmities. In the land where there’s honor in being able to eat the most hot dogs, what is one to do?

Portion control is more an art than a discipline, one grounded in a useful bit of self-deception. I have written about the power of incrementalism, cutting back portions over weeks and months as you introduce new variety. Though very simple, the method sometimes requires a scale and can be a bit too unstructured for some.

One trick I use to control my intake is to ask myself if I can live with half the amount being offered; indeed, will I be just as happy eating half as much? I put this approach into play in a variety of ways, from splitting a dessert with my husband to counting the number of pieces of bread I eat in a restaurant. (Bread is one of my “offenders,” a food I’m particularly vulnerable to overeating, and I can mindlessly eat three or four slices if I don’t pay attention.) I use this simple alternative regularly, especially when not sure about the “hidden” ingredients of what I’ve been served or when the portion I’ve been offered is obviously large. I eat half. Slowly, of course, chewing well. I then ask myself whether I’m content, and therefore whether continuing would be a matter of pleasure or merely routine.

Contentment with most foods, in terms of taste, is to be found in the first few bites. It’s your brain that tells your stomach what’s enough, not vice versa. After that, another psychological phenomenon kicks in: that of literally filling ourselves, which evolution perhaps favors as a hedge against starvation, making it a pleasant feeling (at least until you’re totally bloated) and therefore a natural impulse.

Often I do continue eating, but I have only half of the half that’s left. Then, after pausing, I consider half of what’s left again. Edward calls this my Zeno’s Paradox of portion control. To paraphrase the ancient principle, if you continue eating only half of what’s on your plate each time, you will never eat the whole thing. That’s a theoretical explanation. I’m content to call it the 50 Percent Solution and think more practically about why it works. The act of stopping and reflecting slows down consumption, allowing the brain to catch up with the stomach and release the hormone that tells us, “Mmm, that was good, but I’ve had enough.” Contentment is largely a matter of the clock—not just how much you ingest but also what you’ve eaten during a given interval.

If you implement the 50 Percent Solution routinely, your sense of a satisfying portion is bound to shrink. I’ve been doing it so long it even works on a banana.

Bananas are a welcome staple, available year-round since they grow in tropical climes not subject to the seasons of our temperate zone. Certainly in winter they fill out the relative dearth of fresh fruit. And they are good for you: low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium and a good source of dietary fiber, vitamin C, potassium, manganese, and vitamin B6. Most of their calories, though, come from sugars, which increase with ripeness, so they are a potential offender and must be eaten with care. When they are perfectly ripe, bananas are a peerless “dessert” fruit.

I’ve noticed two things about bananas over the years. First, they are on average twice as large as they were in my youth. Second, you peel it, you’ll eat it—often in very big bites, making it disappear in no time. So applying the 50 Percent Solution, I cut the banana in half before peeling it, then wrap the exposed end of one half in plastic. I set that aside for another time, perhaps for breakfast the next day or a later dessert. With a bit of practice, half a twenty-first-century banana makes a most satisfying dessert, especially when you treat it as you would a piece of cake or pie. I don’t eat it with my fingers. I peel it and set it out on a plate and eat it with a knife and fork. I savor each bite, and I put down my fork between bites. Eating slowly enlarges the experience, alerting my brain to the banana consumption in process. (Hint: A sliver of banana tastes just as much like banana as a big chunk. Eat the smallest bite that lets you register taste. Then have
another.) Lots of people I know would make that half banana vanish in twenty seconds, but how much satisfaction are they getting? I’d bet I derive more by consuming my half mindfully over the course of a few minutes. Try it.

The principle works with liquid nutrition as well. As I’ll describe later at greater length, wine is food, but a food whose great benefits can be negated by immoderate consumption—too much of a good thing. Wine is also my business, an indispensable part of my life and lifestyle. And as everyone knows, French women enjoy it without getting fat. Red wines are rich in the flavonoid called resveratrol, a superpotent antioxidant also found in blueberries. But actually all wines are good for you, and one of the most complex, Champagne, has a few distinctive trace elements and uniquely salubrious effects.

But how much is good for you? Doctors, French and otherwise, suggest having a glass or two (four to eight ounces a day), depending on your size—but having it with food, bien sûr. Open a typical 750-milliliter bottle, however, and voilà, you are looking at six glasses. What to do? When we are at home, Edward and I rigorously apply the 50 Percent Solution, because we know that after that first or second glass, it can be deliciously simple to pour a third or more, after which the health benefit is shot. (Okay, the occasional third glass won’t kill you, but it’s still not part of a healthy lifestyle.) So here’s how it works.

We started out buying some half bottles (375 milliliters) and kept the empties. Now when we open a new bottle of wine for dinner, the first thing we do is pour half the contents into an empty half bottle and cork it immediately. The wine has seen air for perhaps fifteen seconds. Recapped and usually refrigerated, it will last in top form for days, weeks, and even months.

So we always have one or several capped half bottles on hand for future meals. At dinner, a half bottle is good for about three or perhaps four glasses, total. But remember, wine should be sipped and tasted. A wineglass should never be more than half to two-thirds full: to taste it properly, you need room to swirl it, expose it to the air to soften it, and you want the empty part of the glass trapping the bouquet. Enter the 50 Percent Solution yet again: we drink a half glass at a time, each of us perhaps enjoying two refills from the half bottle. (It is amazing how easy it is to fool ourselves. Three half-glass pours are far more psychologically fulfilling and pleasurable, without a feeling of restraint, than a glass and a half or a single pour into a very large glass.)

The greatest and most memorable wine I’ve ever experienced was a rare Burgundy served to me in a two-ounce portion—and I remember it to this day! Over the years Edward and I have been fortunate to acquire some pretty decent bottles, and using the half-bottle trick, we have not been shy about opening them, knowing that each can be savored on more than one occasion.

And here’s one more example of using the 50 Percent Solution in managing portions. I suspect we all know someone who “adds coffee to her sugar.” I know at least two women who routinely add four packets of sugar to each of the several cups of coffee they have every day. And that’s for a normal-sized cup. We all need our stimulants, but there are so many better ones than sugar.