A version of this article was first published in Healthy Life magazine, under the name, “Portion Distortion.” I have an Emergency Room doctor friend who’s been thinking about writing a book called Eat Less or Die because she’s so worried about the health consequences she sees from obesity. I am not obese but like a lot of Americans I struggle with my weight. I saw myself on French TV and was appalled by how fat my arms looked. My doc friend’s concerns inspired me to post this article here.
Walk down the street in any European city and pay attention to the waistlines of the people you pass. The largest belt sizes belong to the American tourists.
Americans lead the world in excess fat: 63.1 percent of American people were considered overweight or obese in 2009. Adult obesity rates are on the rise with over 27 percent of adults considered obese in 2013.
Why so much blubber?
Some blame American largeness on “portion distortion,” the incredible increase in the size of restaurant meals in the past 20 years.
It’s not just the fast food chains that have been increasing their portions. According to the latest research, restaurants from McDonald’s to the gourmet French bistro in small town New England are dishing up ridiculously large amounts of food.
“It’s obscene, I could not eat half of the meals I am served,” says Martin O’Brien who lives in Belfast, Ireland, but visits the United States frequently for his work. “I can’t bear to think of the waste.”
O’Brien, five feet ten inches tall, weighs in at a slight 140 pounds. Unlike him, most American consumers pace their eating to keep up with the food being offered.
According to the National Institutes of Health, a bagel 20 years ago was three inches in diameter
and contained 140 calories. Today’s bagel? A caloric treat of more than twice what it used to be: 350 calories strong.
A cheeseburger 20 years ago had roughly 333 calories in it while today’s megaburger has 590.
And today’s portion of spaghetti and meatballs has 1,025 calories, which includes two cups of pasta with sauce and three meatballs. The NIH specifies that this carbohydrate saturation is 525 more calories than a portion of pasta 20 years ago.
Even drinks have followed suit. A 6.5 ounce portion of soda, the cheapest drink on the market, had 85 calories 20 years ago. Today? The same amount of soda has 250 calories in it.
Why is it that portions in restaurants have become so absurdly large?
Aggressive marketing by America’s fast food industry is part of the reason.
In 1983 when John Martin became CEO of Taco Bell he knew he had to do some quick thinking to keep the franchise from going under. He met just the man to do it: Elliot Bloom. A market researcher, Bloom helped Martin figure out that they could cater to more American consumers by pricing food so low that anyone would be wooed by the cheap cost of a meal. It worked so well that the other fast food joints followed suit.
That is where portion distortion comes in. In order to satisfy investors and increase profits even more, fast food venues kept prices low and introduced “super sizing,” offering enormous portions at very low prices.
Since the food itself is so cheap for the chains to produce, they don’t lose money by keeping prices low and serving more of it.
In fact, most of the money does not go to make the food, it goes to pay the overhead costs of running a business (electricity, insurance, advertising, etc.).
If you don’t normally gravitate towards the jumbo burger or super burrito, the chain stores have added some incentive: Buy the next largest size and get a bigger drink at the same cost! Upgrade your meal for just one extra dollar!
What gets lost in this equation, though, is the fact that none of us needs to be eating so much food.
Excess weight, which we already knew was associated with high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease, has also been linked to higher incidents of breast, ovarian, and prostate cancer.
The moral of this story? Next time you grab a Happy Meal or enjoy a French steak au poivre, think twice before you stuff every last bit of your meal into your mouth.
Ask for a doggy bag and eat the leftovers another time.
That’s Un p’tit sac pour le chien.