People overeat for a lot of reasons — from not knowing the caloric values of foods, to continuing to eat after taking in enough sustenance, to using food as a method of stress relief, such as eating that dish of ice cream you were just thinking about.
Pam Echeverria has a solution. "Sizing Up Your Plate in a Supersized World" is a program designed to help people better understand our relationships with food.
Echeverria, a registered dietitian at Northwest Medical Center, developed the program a couple of years ago as part of the NMC's voluntary employee weight loss program, and then converted it into a program for the public, first at Oro Valley Hospital and later at Continental Reserve Urgent Care.
One of the key elements of the program, Echeverria, pointed out, is that there are no bad or fattening foods. It's about the choices we make.
"While there are some items you don't want to eat a lot of, I want to get people away from thinking there are bad foods they can never eat," she said. "The whole concept of calorie counting is tedious and most people can't keep up with it, so I like to promote being calorie aware."
As an example, Echeverria made a comparison between cookies and a piece of pie.
"If I wanted to spend 300 calories, I probably wouldn't eat two of the little packaged cookies that will just taste OK if I really wanted the pie," she said. "A lot of people would think that if they had the pie, they had totally fallen off the wagon and then might ditch eating well completely."
For instance, instead of eating the pie, a person might eat an apple with some cheese, crackers and nuts and go over the calorie level of the pie alone, she noted.
"So it would be better to have a little sliver of the pie, be happy with it and cross it off your mental plate of things you want to eat so you don't feel deprived, then eat more healthy things later."
Some people use eating as a form of stress reduction, Echeverria pointed out, and sometimes they go overboard in that regard.
"Eating can be a stress relief as well as a social thing that makes us feel good," she said, "but some folks might need to refocus their use of eating as stress reduction. The goal should be to satisfy your wants within a calorie limit or smaller portion."
Portion control is a key element in sizing up what's on your plate, according to Echeverria.
"People should read labels," she said. "Today I had a lunch that could be viewed as one serving, but when I read the label there were actually two servings in it. It was a little Chinese box lunch that you heat up in the microwave for a quick meal, but if I didn't read the label, I might assume it was only one serving, not two."
Echeverria thinks people should get back to what portions were a couple of decades ago.
"A lot of companies and restaurants feel its easier to give bigger portions for customer satisfaction," she said. "But in the case of big portions, you should either share the portion or take some of it home for lunch the next day."
Echeverria said it's hard to determine exactly what size portions should be.
"It's difficult to quantify how much an ounce is when you're looking at it," she said. "For example, a half cup is about the size of half of a tennis ball, while the tip of your thumb is like a teaspoon. Also, something the size of a computer mouse would be about 3.5 ounces, typically the size of a portion of meat."
Other visual guidelines people can use include:
• a portion of nuts should fit in the palm of your cupped hand
• a medium-sized fruit is about the size of your fist
• a one-inch cube is about an ounce of cheese
• a portion of food the size of a standard deck of cards is around 4 ounces.
Echeverria, who's main focus for the past 15 years has been in clinical nutrition and who supervises five dietitians at Northwest, said she's a big proponent of eating fruits and vegetables.
"Vegetables that are crunchy or leafy are high in antioxidants, provide fiber, are low in calories, have vitamins and minerals, and have a lot of crunch appeal," she said. "You can add a large portion of them to your plate so you don't feel like you only have a tiny bit of food, and they've been shown to help in vascular disease and cancer prevention."
Echeverria also recommends choosing fruits and vegetables that are the colors of the rainbow, which she calls the best guide to determining antioxidants.
"Pick colorful veggies and fruits in the greens, reds, purples and oranges," she said. "Berries are best on the fruit side and apples are a good choice, as are pears, peaches and other fruits with pits."
The next Sizing Up Your Plate in a Supersized World presentation will be Wednesday, July 8 at Continental Reserve Urgent Care.