Did you know that identical recipes for cookies and desserts in the old editions of “Joy of Cooking” specify fewer servings?
It is evident to all of us that the number of overweight and obese adults and children in the USA has increased sharply over the last few years. Since studies show that the amount of physical activity has not changed much in the last decades, the increase in bodyweight must come from a change in food intake. Considering that about half the people in the USA consume their meals outside the home, portion size becomes an important factor in the increase of bodyweight.
The American Journal of Public Health published a study about current portion sizes in restaurants, fast foods, and food manufacturers. The authors compared the data with portion sizes over the past 30 years, and they came up with some amazing numbers. First, they noted that all the portions offered in every category exceed by far the guidelines of the USDA and the FDA. Cookies are seven times bigger than recommended, cooked pasta five times larger, muffins three times larger, and so on.
Then they discovered that portion sizes began to grow in the 1970s and have continued to grow at the same rate as bodyweight. Food and fast food companies today promote larger items and use larger sizes as selling points. Widespread price competition has induced manufacturers to introduce larger items as a means to expand market share, since they discovered that profit rises when the product size is bigger. In the mid 1950s, McDonald’s offered only one size of French fries. That size is available as the “small” size today. The food industry invests billions in making their products more attractive, sexier, saltier, or sweeter, and we are vulnerable to their promotions. This happened when we became more sedentary, and kids spent longer hours in front of the TV or their computers.
See the Washington Post “Portion Distortion”, Dec. 29, 2002.
Going to Europe or other countries, we see some striking differences in the eating habits. First of all, there is not as much food advertising. Most Italian TV ads are about basic ingredients like olive oil, wine, and pasta, and not so much about prepackaged food or fast food chains. In addition, the portion sizes are considerably smaller than in America. I recently had dinner in a steakhouse and the smallest portion available on the menu was a 10 oz filet mignon. That is about three times larger than the average size of a portion of meat in Italy.
See the size of portions in Italy on my page.
I noticed myself many times that people moving to the USA from other countries would gain weight in a few months. There is no doubt in my mind that the amount of food we ingest today is one of the main causes of the general growth in the number of overweight Americans. This doesn’t affect only people with a weight problem, but also those who are maybe only a few pounds overweight and struggle to control the size of their waistline. In an environment where lifestyle and advertising pushes to eat out more and in larger quantities, it is imperative that we learn how to control ourselves.
I learned one very good way to start from a trainer at the gym, and I encourage everyone to try it. It is very simple. Every day for a week, write in a notepad everything you ingest. Take note of the quantities, not only for the main meals, but even the smallest things like drinks, candies, and snacks. Then, with the help of a calorie chart, add up the numbers. Many people say “I don’t know how I gain weight. I don’t eat very much.” I bet these people would be surprised. It is incredible how all those little things we munch during the day add up to a large number of calories.
After the shock, the realization will come that something needs to be done. First, it is important to understand what a regular portion looks like. A 3 oz portion of meat is approximately the size of a deck of cards or a bar of soap (when was the last time you saw a steak of that size?). A 3 oz portion of fish is the size of a checkbook, a 1 oz portion of cheese is the size of a matchbox, one medium potato is the size of a computer mouse, and 1 cup of pasta is the size of two eggs.
When eating out, choose the small or medium sizes instead of the large ones. Ask for half of the meal to be packed to go. Share your portion with a friend. Don’t eat the bread and butter before the meal. Don’t buy a lot of food for your home. Buy single serving packages. If you snack, don’t eat from the bag, but place a few chips or crackers on a dish. Cut the amount of sauces, mayonnaise, and cream cheese, and use low calorie types. If you are a big eater, fill yourself with a large quantity of vegetables and eventually fresh fruit.
Everyone that tries to keep their weight under control knows how difficult it is. The first step is to be creative in reducing the sizes of food portions.
L. R. Young & M. Nestle, The Contribution of Expanding Portion Sizes to the US Obesity Epidemic, American Journal of Public Health, February 2002.
© Anna Maria Volpi
Did you know that your new automobile is likely to have a larger cup-holder than your older model? Or that restaurants use larger plates, bakers are selling larger muffins, pizzerias have larger pans, and fast food companies are using larger French fries and drink containers than 20 years ago?