When you’re trying to lose weight, you might start by eating less.
But how do you scale back your portions without going hungry? Thankfully, there are several strategies you can use to cut calories while keeping hunger at bay.
This article contains 8 great tips to reduce food portions without making you hungrier.
1. Make at Least Half Your Plate Veggies
By replacing half the starch or protein of your meal with non-starchy vegetables, you can eat the same volume of food and still slash overall calories (1).
And research has shown that the amount of food you eat is a factor in feeling full (2).
In one study, participants were each given the same amount of pasta, but with differing amounts of vegetables.
Participants ate similar amounts of food regardless of how much veggies they got, meaning those who had the highest proportion of vegetables ate the least calories without even knowing it (3).
Try scaling down the portions of other foods and fill the rest of your plate with non-starchy vegetables.
You can apply this same concept when making mixed dishes. Just add more vegetables to your favorite recipes to make them lower in calories and more nutrient-dense.
Summary: Veggies add volume to your meal, letting you eat fewer calories for the same amount of food.
2. Eat Protein With Every Meal or Snack
One study from 2012 looked at the effects of eating high-protein meals on feelings of fullness. Participants ate meals with 20–30% of calories from protein.
The researchers found that individuals who ate the protein-rich meals felt fuller in both the short and long term, compared to when their meals contained half that amount of protein (5).
Take advantage of protein’s filling properties by including it in every meal and snack.
Focus on lean sources of protein, such as eggs, skinless poultry, dairy, seafood and fish. Plant-based proteins are also good choices, and may include beans, bean dips, tofu and nut butters.
Here are some ideas for getting a protein boost in different meals and snacks:
- Add some plain Greek yogurt to your breakfast smoothie.
- Pair whole-grain crackers with string cheese or hummus.
- Poach an egg in vegetable soup.
- Add beans or a hard-boiled egg to salad.
Summary: Protein helps your body feel more full than carbs or fat do. Include protein with each meal and snack to boost its power.
3. Drink Water With Your Meal
For older adults, drinking water right before a meal could help fill you up and reduce the likelihood you’ll overeat.
In one study in older adults, people who drank about 2 cups (500 ml) of water before breakfast ate approximately 13% less than the participants who did not drink any water before eating (8).
Drinking water before a meal doesn’t seem to have the same effect on younger adults. Nevertheless, replacing high-calorie drinks with water can save you total calories at your meal (9).
Drink water or other zero-calorie beverages with your meal to quench your thirst without increasing your calorie intake.
Summary: Drinking water with your meal saves you extra calories. What’s more, drinking a glass of water before a meal helps some people eat less.
4. Begin With a Vegetable Soup or Salad
It might seem counterintuitive to eat more courses in order to eat less food, but starting your meal with a soup or salad can help you do just that.
In one study, participants ate lunch in a lab once a week for five weeks. When they were given soup before the entrée, they ate 20% fewer calories for their entire meal than when they just ate the entrée (10).
That same researcher found similar results when she gave people salad before an entrée of pasta (11).
When people ate a small salad before their pasta, they ate 7% fewer calories during their meal than when they dove directly into the pasta. When they ate a large salad, they ate 12% fewer calories.
Light vegetable soups and salads have something in common: they have a high water content, are full of fiber-rich veggies and are generally low in calories.
This high-fiber, high-water combo seems to be a great way to curb subsequent calorie intake (12).
However, watch out for salad dressing, which can quickly rack up the calories.
Summary: Starting off with a low-calorie soup or salad takes the edge off your hunger, priming you to eat less of the main course.
5. Use Smaller Plates and Forks
It might sound strange, but the size of your plates and eating utensils affects how much you eat.
In one study, researchers found that people tend to fill their plates about 70% full, regardless of plate size (13).
That translates into a lot more food if you’re using a 10-inch plate compared to an 8-inch plate — 52% more food, in fact (13).
And when you have more on your plate, you’re likely to eat more (14).
So harness the power of illusion and use a smaller plate and utensils. The same portion will look bigger and you’ll likely eat less.
Summary: Using smaller plates can help keep portion sizes in check while tricking your brain into thinking you’re eating more.
6. Eat Mindfully
Between your smart phone, the television and a hectic lifestyle, it can be all too easy to eat while distracted.
Distracted eating tends to lead you to eat more, not just at that meal, but for the rest of the day (17).
Mindful eating, the practice of paying full attention to what you eat without distractions, helps you notice your body’s hunger and fullness cues, so that you can actually know when you’ve had enough (18).
Mindfulness can also help you distinguish between physical hunger and emotional hunger (18).
When you feel hungry, ask yourself if you’re actually hungry or if you’re just wanting to eat because you’re bored or experiencing another emotion.
If you’re in the habit of eating emotionally, try some other strategies before eating, such as going for a walk, exercising, having a cup of tea or journaling.
And instead of multitasking at mealtime, try setting aside at least 20 minutes to tune into your food, taking time to smell it, taste it and feel its effect on your body.
Summary: Limiting distractions and being mentally present while you eat can help you better recognize when you’re hungry or full.
7. Spice Up Your Meals
Adding hot peppers to your food may help you eat less.
In one study, participants who consumed spicy red pepper as part of an appetizer ate 190 fewer calories during a subsequent lunch and snack than those who skipped the spice (20).
If you can’t take the heat, ginger may have a similar effect.
A study in 10 overweight men found that participants felt less hungry when they drank ginger tea during breakfast than when they skipped the ginger tea (21).
Summary: Adding hot pepper or ginger to your meal may help you feel more full and eat less.
8. Eat More Soluble Fiber
In general, fiber-rich foods can help you feel full.
And foods with soluble fiber, such as oatmeal, pears and beans, are particularly filling. That’s because soluble fiber holds more water, giving it bulk.
As a side note, those same researchers found that using chia seeds reduced the hunger hormone ghrelin by the end of the six-month period, compared to starting levels (25).
Here are a few easy ways to increase your soluble fiber intake:
- Add chia or ground flaxseeds to smoothies, yogurt and cereal.
- Top whole-grain oatmeal, buckwheat or millet breakfast bowls with diced apple or pear.
- Add beans to soups, salads and entrées.
- Eat more squash. Both winter and summer squashes are high in soluble fiber.
- Snack on fruit.
Summary: Soluble fiber helps keep hunger at bay. Find it in oatmeal, chia seeds, squash, beans, apples and pears.
The Bottom Line
Eating fewer calories doesn’t have to mean feeling hungry.
In fact, there are many things you can do to keep hunger at bay.
Try bulking up your portions with veggies, eating more protein or tricking your mind by using smaller plates.
These simple tips can help you control food portions without feeling hungry.