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Expanding Portions, Expanding Waistlines

Posted Aug 17 2012 12:00am

You may have noticed that restaurant portion sizes are inversely proportional to the prices on the menu. High-end restaurants with famous chefs tend to serve small portions with entrees that look like more like appetizers, while casual dining restaurants will often serve entrees on enormous serving platters that could feed a family of four and still have enough left over to fill a doggy bag.

There are good reasons for that. Think about a meal you had at a casual dining restaurant, or even better, an all-you-can-eat buffet. The emphasis there is not on the quality of the food, although it’s usually pretty decent. The real appeal of these places is getting the most value for your money. From a business point of view, that’s also the expectation in that market segment so if they cut back on portions they risk losing market share. They make their profit by standardizing the whole process and through economy of scale. As the overnight TV ads for retail stores that sell at wholesale prices say, “How do we do it? Volume!”

From the consumer’s point of view, the idea of getting a boatload of food for $6.99 challenges you to get your money’s worth. Some places actually dare you to eat a gi-normous serving of something, like a four-pound steak, by offering it for free if you can polish it off. One patient of mine described a memorable – she called it “horrifying” – experience she observed at an all-you-can-eat restaurant when a very obese father and son sat down to consume a mountain of meat loaf, fried chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy over everything. When they finished, they both paused and let out a heavy sigh, the father pulled out a handkerchief to wipe off his forehead, and they went back to the buffet to load up their trays again. Hey, it’s hard work, but think of the savings!

This experience has become increasingly frequent for most consumers because of the low expense and as a result has contributed to significant changes in how we eat. For one thing, the idea of a “normal” portion has expanded considerably over a short period of time. As the Obesity Education Initiative of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute points out on its enlightening yet rather frightening online presentation, called “Portion Distortion,” the portion sizes – and thus the calorie content – of most food items have gone through a period of hyperinflation over the past twenty to thirty years.

For example, a typical restaurant serving of chicken ceasar salad was 1.5 cups or 390 calories in 1980, and more than doubled to 3.5 cups or 790 calories by 2000. In that same period of time, a typical box of movie theater popcorn grew from 5 cups or 270 calories to 11 cups or 630 calories. A chocolate chip cookie that was 1.5 inches in diameter and only 55 calories is now 3.5 inches across and 275 calories. The list goes on. It should come as no surprise that the average weight of American adults has also increased by about 20 pounds over that time span.

What is perhaps even more disconcerting is that the visual image that we have of what a typical portion size looks like in a restaurant has carried over to how we eat at home and has become the new normal. On some level we’re probably thinking, “Hey, these guys are experts; they must know what a serving of mashed potatoes should look like.” Then we replicate that image at home and it becomes the new standard.

Ultimately, though, what counts is not how much you put on your plate, but how much you actually eat. That’s where expanding portion size becomes a real problem, because we don’t rely on knowing what we need or what we want to limit our eating, we rely on what’s in front of us in addition to countless other environmental cues.

As Brian Wansink points out in his book, Mindless Eating, his research has demonstrated that how much people eat is determined to a large degree by the context that the food is in. We eat more from a large bag of chips than a small one and we put more on a 12-inch dinner plate than a 9-inch one. People will eat more if they are using a larger serving spoon to dish the food onto their plates, or if the bowl that the food is served in is larger.

Barbara Rolls, in her book Volumetrics, has similarly demonstrated in her research that people eat as much as 50 percent more when they are with friends than when they are alone or eating with people they don’t know. The solution, of course, is not to eat alone, but to be more aware of what you are eating, how much you are eating, and when it’s time to stop eating.

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