How to train your brain to eat less and have better portion control

These tricks really are so simple to implement.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

According to psychologists, most of the actions we carry out on a day-to-day basis are the result of automatic, unconscious processes, or habits. And that's especially the case with eating.

But, the good news is, you can capitalise on these processes to replace unhealthy tendencies with healthy eating habits. It'll take a bit of effort at first – research has found that our brains require anything from 21 to 90 days to cement a new habit. But, persist and, in a few weeks' time, you'll find you're eating less without even realising it. Start following these fifteen simple steps today and you'll be well on your way to training your brain to eat less...

How to eat less and start eating mindfully

Ever munched your way through a gargantuan box of popcorn at the cinema when you weren't even hungry? Devoured your dinner in front of the telly without really tasting it? Logged onto Facebook over a cup of tea and a biscuit or thirteen?

Well, you're not alone. "Mindless eating is a modern-day malady," says Rachel Bartholomew, nutrition consultant and co-author of Mindful Eating. "Our hectic lifestyles mean it's all too easy to make mindless food choices. We reach for unhealthy snacks for a quick energy boost and we're constantly distracted while we eat." Eating like this not only reduces our enjoyment of the food we eat, but can lead to overeating, as we fail to pick up on the signs of physical fullness, or to register what we've eaten mentally.

But, by engaging your mind, you can turn this habit around. Mindful eating is about tuning in to what your body really needs.

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"When you find yourself reaching for chocolate or some other treat, pause," advises mindfulness teacher Anna Black. "Acknowledge what is happening without judging. Ask yourself what's driving you to reach for it – boredom? Or is it in response to something that's happened? Pausing and noticing your thoughts, emotions and physical sensations helps you focus. You may still eat the chocolate, but it becomes a choice rather than an unconscious, automatic reaction, and sometimes bringing that moment of choice into awareness helps us break a chain of automatic behaviour."

Plan your meals in advance

Planning healthy meals before doing your weekly shop helps fortify you against the powers of the junk food BOGOF displays. If you're going out for dinner, try to look at the menu (and nutritional information, if available) online in advance. You might decide to treat yourself to a healthy starter and ‘mini' dessert rather than a pizza substantial enough for a family of four. Alternatively, if you expect to indulge in a ‘blowout' meal or evening out, you can simply plan an extraordinarily virtuous set of meals for the following day.

How to eat less by organising your kitchen

You don't necessarily need to bin all your snacks – this process is about developing a mindful, balanced approach to eating, not crash dieting. But it is a good idea to put your 'naughtier' treats out of sight, to prevent mindless snacking.

Eat more protein

Protein takes longer to digest than carbs, meaning it'll keep you fuller for longer. Research has found that eating a high protein breakfast results in lower calorie consumption for the rest of the day. Think eggs and beans – you can leave the 7am servings of steak to the bodybuilders.

Use smaller plates... and bowls... and spoons

Research has found that people serve themselves a third more ice cream when given a larger bowl, and half as much again when they use a larger spoon. Using smaller plates, bowls and spoons can trick your brain into thinking you're eating more than you actually are. And if your ice cream tends to bypass the bowl stage entirely, travelling directly from tub to mouth, start opting for individual portion-controlled pots (and yes, that also goes for crisps, popcorn, biscuits...)

And make them blue

Before you rush out on a mini crockery spending spree, take note. Research has found that we naturally consume less when we eat from brightly coloured plates and bowls. It's thought that this is due to the degree of colour contrast between the food and the crockery. Try bright red or electric blue. On a side note, if you (or a significant other) struggle to eat your greens, a broccoli-coloured plate could help...

How to eat less – by 20%

Most people can eat 20% more or less than usual without really noticing. So, if you typically cook yourself a 100g portion of pasta, make it 80g. While you're at it, try dishing up 20% more veg to fill you up whilst boosting your nutrient intake.

Turn it down

Researchers have found that not being able to hear the sound of your own chewing can result in overeating. So, if you're listening to music or watching TV while you eat, keep the volume down. Better yet, turn it off completely.

Eat with the wrong hand

Eating with your non-dominant hand causes you to eat, on average, 30% less, by preventing ‘mindless' eating. Using chopsticks (unless you happen to be particularly proficient!) may have similar benefits.

Make it last

"There's a time lag of about 20 minutes between eating and the brain receiving the message that the stomach is full," says Anna. "When we eat too quickly, we don't create the opportunity to receive the message. If we take our time, we notice when the body says, ‘enough'." Try setting a timer for 25 minutes – can you make it last?

Track your progress with Smart Scale, such as Active Era Smart Body Fat Scales.

Go for a walk

Light physical exercise after a meal helps your muscles to absorb the glucose you have just consumed and prevents insulin spikes.

Switch your snacks

Hungry between meals? Water and chewing gum have been found to act as appetite suppressants.

Keep a photo diary

Develop your awareness of how much you are really eating by snapping a shot of each meal, drink and snack on your phone, and reviewing it daily. Set a fixed time limit for the period you are going to track, say 5 days, so you don't over obsess.

Set calorie limits per meal, rather than for the whole day

One study by the University of Singapore and the University of Michigan found that participants who set a calorie target for each meal, ate, on average, 219 calories fewer than those who set a daily limit. Researchers found that this was because the former group cut calories in all meals they ate, while the latter group focused on meals such as dinner and snacks where they predicted they would over consume, neglecting other meals. 

Eat a simple salad before your main meal

It seems illogical to eat more, to eat less overall, but this exact principle was demonstrated in a study published in the journal HHS Public Access. It saw participants eat a low-energy-dense salad (300g; 100 kcal) before a pasta main meal. The study concluded that overall eating  a fixed amount of salad at the start of the meal reduced energy intake by 11% and increased vegetable intake by 23%. Stick to a simple green salad with extra low-cal veggies such a tomatoes and a squeeze of lemon plus salt and pepper for the dressing.

Or...try the 'Happy Apple Plan'

Not a fan of salad? The 'Happy Apple Plan' from British Apples and Pears works in a similar way and suggests eating an apple before your evening meal.

"Consuming an apple before a meal will help to increase the overall fibre content of that meal, and help you feel full and satisfied for longer," says leading nutritionist Rob Hobson. "It’s so easy too. Just snack on a fresh and crunchy British apple as you’re preparing a meal, and then you’ll not only benefit from being less likely to eat as much of the meal, you’ll also benefit from the apples’ healthy flavonoids and fibres that can help to burn belly fat and promote satiety."

Eat and cook in

A study conducted by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that those who cooked dinner at home between 6-7 times a week consumed fewer calories, fat and sugar when compared to those cooking dinner at home between 0-1 times a week. This is likely to be because you are better able to control what goes into your meals when eating in compared to when eating out/getting a takeaway. Why not try this Lightened-up chicken korma recipe the next time you're at home on a Friday night? 

Experiment with meal timing strategies

In a study published in the journal of The Obesity Society  researchers found that early time‐restricted feeding (eTRF) (eating from 8 am to 2 pm) and control schedule (eating from 8 am to 8 pm) eating helped to facilitate weight loss by reducing overall appetite, rather than increasing calorie burn. If you're considering intermittent fasting, here's everything you need to know about the 16:8 diet.