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If you've resolved to shed those extra pounds this year, forget about counting grams of fat, carbohydrate blocks or even calories. And disregard the notion of a magic bullet.

The key to losing weight is simpler than you might think: portion control.

By slowly reducing the size of your meals, you can lose pounds without disrupting your lifestyle. Unlike a crash diet you can't stick to, downsizing your portions is a sustainable change to your eating habits.

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Sure, many of us know the reason for a tighter waistband is too much food - at home and in restaurants. After all, a steady intake of large portions translates into too many calories headed straight for your midsection (or hips, or thighs).

According to Statistics Canada, the average number of calories in the Canadian diet soared 18 per cent between 1992 and 2002. What's more, the portion sizes of many foods - chocolate bars, potato chips, desserts, restaurant meals - have practically doubled in the past two decades.

If we're aware of the portion problem, why is it so hard to fix it? Habit, for starters. The "clean your plate" mentality is very powerful and often rooted in childhood. Once your eyes and stomach become used to large portions of food, cutting back can make you feel deprived.

Before you start controlling portion size, you may need to rein in your appetite. In order to feel satisfied with less food at meals, you need to eat three small meals plus two healthy snacks throughout the day. Spreading your food out keeps your stomach always partly full. If you sit down to a meal ravenously hungry, you're bound to overeat.

The next step is doing a reality check on what an appropriate "serving size" looks like. A serving size is a specific amount defined by food guides, nutrition labels and diet plans. (A portion size, on the other hand, is the amount of food you eat in one sitting, regardless of how much your body needs.)

A standard serving of cooked meat or chicken is about three ounces (85 grams), or the size of a deck of cards. For starchy foods such as cooked rice and pasta, a serving is one half-cup (125 millilitres), or the size of half a tennis ball. Once you start weighing and measuring the amount of food you eat at meals, you may find that standard servings are much smaller than real-life portions.

It's important to know how many food servings you need each day and how much you're eating, which you can read about online in Canada's Food Guide. If you're trying to lose weight, you'll probably need to eat fewer servings than recommended for your age and gender.

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Portion control is not about deprivation. Research shows that when we're served less food, we don't leave the table hungry. Study participants report feeling just as satisfied with the smaller portion as with larger-sized meals. And once you begin to feel the benefits of eating smaller portions - weight loss, better digestion, more energy - you won't be tempted to ask for seconds.

Eating right-sized portions requires knowledge, awareness, time and constant vigilance. The following tips will get you started.

USE THE PLATE MODEL

To eat less, you've got to put less food on your plate. Period. To help control your portion size, divide your plate into quarters. Fill one quarter with protein such as meat, chicken, fish or tofu. Fill another quarter with a starchy food like rice, pasta, potato or quinoa. The remaining half of your plate should be filled with vegetables.

Instead of using a dinner plate, serve your meal on a luncheon-sized plate (seven to nine inches in diameter). Use small glasses for milk, juice and other caloric beverages, and large glasses for water.

SERVE SEVERAL COURSES

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Prolong your meal by dividing it into a few courses. Start with a broth-based soup; serve salad separately from the rest of the meal; offer fruit afterward instead of an extra portion of meat or potato. This stretches mealtime, makes less food seem like more and gives your brain time to register when you've had enough to eat.

KEEP SECONDS OUT OF SIGHT

Don't serve food "family style." Seeing dishes of food on the table encourages overeating. Ideally, cook only one serving. If there's extra food sitting on the stove, you'll be tempted to go back for seconds.

If you do make extra food for another day, separate leftovers into individual-sized containers. That way, you'll reheat just enough for one serving.

BULK UP YOUR MEALS

Foods such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, broth-based soups, low-fat milk, legumes, poultry breast and white fish are called low-energy-density foods. They provide a larger portion size for fewer calories, thanks to their water and fibre content.

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Desserts, processed foods, crackers, chips and oils have a high energy density - a small portion has a large number of calories. Medium-energy-density foods include cheese, salad dressing, meats and breads.

Research shows that eating larger quantities of low-energy-density foods and smaller portions of foods with high and medium energy density increases satisfaction and reduces caloric intake more effectively than drinking water with a meal.

DON'T RUSH YOUR MEAL

Put your knife and fork down after every bite to slow your eating pace. Or consider using chopsticks. Eating slowly helps you eat less food and gives your brain time to register fullness.

SHARE AN ENTREE

Restaurant portions are often heaping, delivering double or triple the calories you'd serve yourself at home. When dining out, order two appetizers instead of a main course or split an entree between two people.

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READ NUTRITION LABELS

Read labels on food packages to become familiar with serving sizes of breakfast cereals, crackers and snack foods - even salad dressing and peanut butter. Then measure out your foods in a measuring cup or with measuring spoons.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based

dietitian at the Medcan Clinic,

is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is

lesliebeck.com.

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