Friday, November 25, 2016


Americans love to live large.  According to social scientists, this is part of our national psyche that is directly traceable to our wide-spaced national boundaries, ample open space, and rags-to-riches dreams.  Buying into this myth is beneficial when it motivates people to stretch themselves in areas of personal growth and achievement.  When it comes to eating, however, the living-large philosophy puts Americans on a collision course with a variety of health risks and hinders their weight control efforts.

A supersized Trend

The trend toward supersized food portion is nothing new.  Restaurants have long used large portions to lure value seeking customers.  The trend reversed for a while during the health-conscious 1980s, when meat consumption was coincidentally at an all-time high.  Large serving sizes are enjoying a revival, however, as part of the current wellness backlash, which includes such risky behaviors as cigars smoking and increased consumption of hard liquor.

Fast-food chains target bargain hungry consumers weary of wellness warnings.  In an attempt to fend off competition within the industry as well as from new steak houses, ethnic eateries, full-service delis, and take-out restaurants, the fast-food industry is selling and customers are buying over sized portions of traditional favorites, such as burgers, fries, chicken, and pizza, in record numbers.  Typically these super-sized portions cost just pennies more than the standard-size serving.  Another fattening sales strategy is to offer combo meals – essentially the addition of a large order of fries and a giant drink to popular menu items for under fifty cents.

Serving Size Recommendations

As with many health-related issues, portion control embodies many contradictions.  The USDA has standardized food portions, which are used to develop labeling laws and the Food Guide Pyramid (FGP) serving size recommendations.  The average American, accustomed to gigantic servings when dining out, finds serving sizes on food labels surprisingly puny and, on the other hand, the number of servings of produce and grains suggested on the FGP surprisingly high.  Record numbers of low-fat and low-calorie food are available, yet Americans are fatter than ever (average body weight has increased 7.5 pounds in the last decade).  Gourmets tend to favor small portions of fine food, whereas home style cooking enthusiasts prefer an abundance of food, especially meat and starch.  Yet both groups are sporting wider waistlines.

Americans aren’t entirely to blame for their ignorance of serving sizes.  The USDA’s standardization of serving sizes seems anything but standard to the average consumer.  Food manufacturers and restaurant managers have been happy to ignore the USDA’s advice and give cost sensitive consumers the supersized servings they desire.  According to USDA standards, the amount of food that constitute a serving varies.  Some serving size are based on volume and other on weight.  For example, one-half of three-inch-diameter bagel and one-half cup of cooked rice both constitute one serving from the grain, bread, and pasta group of the FGP.  Three ounces of cooked chicken, one-half cup of cooked dried beans, or two table spoons of peanut butter constitute one serving from the meat group.  Even a single food, such as broccoli, can have different serving sizes depending on how it’s prepared: According to the FGP, one serving of a fruit or vegetable equals one cup if eaten raw but only one-half cup if it’s cooked.

Despite pressure from the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, food manufacturers continue to package foods in nonstandard sizes.  They are simultaneously producing giant versions of trendy carbohydrates-rich foods, such as mega muffins, behemoth bagels, and miniature versions of favorite high-fat snacks like mini-cheese-filled Ritz crackers and bite sized Oreos.

Food companies also persist in packaging multiple servings of certain foods, particularly snack foods, in what appear t be single-serving containers.  For instance, the USDA identifies a serving of soda as six ounces, but the typical soda can contains twelve ounces.  This extra serving is inconsequential if you’re drinking diet soda, but regular soda adds sixty-five calories, or roughly five teaspoons of sugar.  Small packages of candy, ships, and cookies often exhibit this same deceptive packaging.

The Portion-Distortion Trend Takes Shapes

Well-meaning health care experts are partly to blame for this supersized servings trend.  During the late 1980s and early 1990s many of them urged people to eat less fat and more carbohydrates.  The selling point for giving up favorite high-fat foods was that “you can eat more food for fewer calories.”  The underlying reason was sound – gram for gram, fat has twice as many calories as carbohydrates.  Unfortunately, portion-ignorant Americans took this advice too literally and began devouring triple-sized tortillas, muffins, pretzels, bagels, and platters of pasta.

Letting someone else do the cooking doesn’t make weight management any easier.  Obesity experts identify dining out as a serious liability for diet-conscious diners.  Presently, Americans spend more than 40% of every food dollar in restaurants. Chic restaurants, featuring small portions of artistically prepared food, are blossoming on every corner in large cities, but in the suburbs and the heartland, the trend is fast-food chains, take-out shops, casual restaurants, and convenience foods, including frozen meals, packaged mixes, and full-service deli items.

More than 80% of all dining-out dollars are spent at family-friendly eateries.  Processes at these establishments are relatively low, but thanks to the supersized portions, calories tend to be high.

Gourmets aren’t faring any better when it comes to waist whittling.  The small portions served in fine restaurants are no guarantee of low-calorie ingredients.  Furthermore, just being in a restaurant, confronted with an overwhelming number of appealing food choices, causes many people to order more courses than they typically eat when dining at home.  How often have you ordered an appetizer or felt overly full but still fallen prey to the dessert cart when it arrived at your table?  Obesity experts believe this tendency to be seduced by the sight and smell of food partly explains the lack of healthy food choices on fast-food menus.  Responding to consumer demand, McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, and Kentucky Fried Chicken all added a variety of low-fat choices to their menus but found that, once on-site, their patrons were still ordering fries, burgers, full-fat burritos, or breaded and fried chicken.  Paradoxically, the larger-portion items were selling better than the standard-sized versions of these foods.  These chains have quietly been phasing out or significantly reducing their healthy menu options since early 1993.  For example, McDonald’s replaced its McLean with a triple cheeseburger that has significantly more calories than the Big Mac.  Kentucky Fried Chicken’s skinless, roasted chicken was replaced by popcorn chicken, a breaded, deep-fried dish that has been breaking sales records.

Even-diet conscious diners who stick to heart-healthy menu can fall into calorie traps.  A recent to an Olive Garden restaurant revealed that the pasta dishes on the heart healthy menu were large enough to feed three or four healthy hearts!  Furthermore, they were accompanied by enough cheesy garlic breadsticks, soup or salad, to destroy anyone’s best diet efforts.  And Olive Garden is no exception.  According to restaurant surveys conducted by the Center For Science in the Public Interest, most restaurants serve portions big enough for two to three people.

Shrinking Your Serving Sizes

How can you healthy choices when eating out? Putting into practice the American Dietetic Association’s 1997 National Nutrition Month campaign theme “All Foods Can Fit” is one option.  This slogan is based on the idea that a balanced lifestyle can lead to a balanced body weight.  Educating yourself about dietary balance and even allows you to include small amounts of sweets and fatty treats.  The FGP booklet supplies tables of food choices and serving size information.  Learning to guesstimate sizes is also essential.  You may need to measuring cups and spoons and a food scale at home until you get the gist of it.  A variety of mnemonic devices for estimating serving sizes are also available.  The “Rule of Thumb for Serving Sizes” shown above is an easily learned, readily available approach.  Other techniques include limiting meat servings to the size of a deck of cards or cassette tape, envisioning a tennis ball to estimate one-cup servings, and thinking of a one-half cup serving as the size of two Ping-Pong balls.  Books featuring attractive photographs are available to assist parents and teachers in teaching children to recognize the sizes of portions of various types of food.

Additional lifestyle changes may also be necessary.  Learning to eat more slowly will allow you to feel satisfied with a smaller portion of food because your brain will have eaten.  You should avoid other activities while eating so that you’re fully aware of what and how much you’re consuming.  Dining out less frequently or dividing all restaurant portions in two and packaging up half before beginning to eat can also help.  Accepting the fact that planned activity is an essential element of weight control and learning how much activity it takes to burn off a slice of cake is also important.  Remember, there are 3,500 calories in a pound of body fat.  Each mile you walk expends about 100 calories, so you would need to walk thirty-five miles to lose one pound of fat.

In essence, Americans can have their cake and eat it too, but it takes practice and persistence to become adept at balancing it all.

For discussion…

What foods do you often consume in supersized portions? Would you be satisfied with smaller servings? Do you tend to order more courses and eat past the point of satiation when you dine in a restaurant because you want to be sure to get your money’s worth? What factors do you think are driving the “wellness backlash”?


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