(The second of 10 blogs on behaviors that affect eating)
The average restaurant meal is now four times larger than it was in 1950.
The average American is now 26 pounds heavier than back then.
But what others serve us (and we eat) is only part of the story. The amounts of food we serve ourselves are also over-sized. They have less to do with hunger and more to do with external cues. To make matters worse, our memories of how much we have eaten is often distorted.
Unfortunately we have learned to define our portion size by what is put in front of us and to pay less attention to internal cues of being satiated. As the graph above indicates, typical serving that are roughly four times larger and most of us finish the meal.
While the graph uses a hamburger and fries the same supersizing has happened with other meals as well.A bagel used to be three inches in diameter and contain 140 calories. Now it is not unusual to find a six inch bagel with 350 calories.
- A bagel used to be three inches in diameter and contain 140 calories. Now it is not unusual to find a six inch bagel with 350 calories.
- The typical serving of spaghetti and meatballs went from 500 calories to over 1000.
- A Blueberry muffin was 1.5 ounces and 210 calories. Now it is 5 ounces and 500 calories.
A study of restaurant meals (entre only) found that 73 percent of the meals ordered had over half of the 2,000 daily calories recommended for adults by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and 12 of the sampled meals contained more than the full daily recommendation. Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, Tufts University
Why Meals are Super-Sized
Companies in the food services and package foods businesses are out to make a profit – so why supersize everything? One reason is competition. If a competitor offers larger quantities for the same price we go for the bargain. Over the years, a competitive spiral pushed companies to continually increase sizes. Why? Because it increases sales.
A second reason is that food production now exceeds what we need nutritionally. It is estimated that the average person needs to consume 2534 calories per day for the food industry to sell its inventory and make an acceptable profit. Most people need about 2000 calories per day to maintain a desirable weight. You got it! The food industry is motivated to get you to eat as much of the 2534 calories as they can. They not only supersized our meals, but they introduced an abundance of between meal snacks and then supersized them. Consuming those extra calories everyday could lead to an adult putting on 50 pounds in a year.
Overeating happens because many of us let the served portion size determine how much we eat.
Everyday ways to control overeating when dining out
- Make room; don’t find room. If you really want a dessert, skip the appetizer, the second glass of wine or don’t eat the starch served with your meal. It helps to know how many calories are in the food you consume. Check out the apps for your Smartphone or use a free service like sparkpeople.com. Here are examples of the tradeoffs you want to make. A piece of apple pie is about 300 calories, add another 250 calories if it comes with a scoop of ice cream. An apple has only 100 calories. An order of Applebee’s Shrimp appetizer is 730 calories but a shrimp cocktail could be as little as 50 calories.
- Pass on the bread. If you really must indulge, go the whole grain variety that has more fiber and healthier complex carbohydrates.
- Share! Split a meal with a friend or significant other.
- Order ala Carte. If you are out for breakfast, order eggs, whole wheat toast, not the breakfast meal that comes with hash browns.
- Ask for a substitute. Request a salad with the dressing on the side as a substitute for the French fries.
- Divide your plate. Make two portions before you start eating – the eat now portion and the take-home bag portion.
- If you overeat. Make a deliberate mental note of it (better yet, write it down) and plan to cut back in the following few meals. Get in the habit of reflecting on previous meals before you start eating. Research by Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Health Research found that those trying to lose weigh who do this type of reflection, lose twice as much as those who don’t.
Realities of Self-service
The visual guidelines for serving sizes above will make most people realize that we most often over-serve and over-eat. When you are eating at home, it is not the food industry defining your intake – well not completely! One thing numerous research studies tell us is that we eat more when the food comes in a large package. Why? Apparently the size of the package influences our perception of the correct portion. Here are a few examples from Brian Warsink’s book Mindless Eating:
People prepare and eat 20 to 25 percent more from larger food packages. Those given a large package of pasta prepared 23% more than those given a medium package.
People given a half-pound bag of M&M’s ate an average of 71 while they watched a video. Those given a one-pound bag ate 137, almost twice as many and 254 calories more.
Visual reminders help. Students were invited to a Super Bowl party where they we told they could have all the chicken wings they wanted from a Buffalo Wing Buffet. The waitresses bussed the bones and dishes from half the tables. The other half faced a growing mound of bones as the day progressed. Those with a visual reminder ate 28% less.
The take away message – find ways to become mindful of how much you have consumed.
When the waitress asked if I wanted my pizza cut into four or eight slices
I said, “Four”. I don’t think I a can eat eight.
Everyday Ways to Trim the Portions You Serve Yourself
Pick Your Plate
People are just as likely to overfill large plates and bowls, as they are smaller one. As with restaurant portions, typical plate sizes have grown over time. The nine-inch plate in 1900 became 10 inches by 1950 and 12 inches by 2010. I’ve shelved my stylish 12 inch ones with plain white 10 inch ones. Why white? The more contrast between the food and the plate, the less likely you are to over-serve.
Pre-Plate Before You Start Eating
Use the “Serving Sizes Bases on Your Hand” as a guideline of how much to put on your plate. People eat about 14% less when they do, and if they have seconds or thirds, the amount is less.
If you are about to hit the snack food, re-plate. That is, take the food from the large package it came in and put in a small bowl. Decide before you start how much you will consume.
In addition to impacting the amount of food you eat, pre-plating can also influence the nutritional value of your meal. This plating guide from Harvard provides a good visual guide whether you are dishing it out at home or re-portioning your meal in a restaurant.
Either plate in the kitchen and leave the extras there or plate at the table and move the extra food to a side table. What seems like a common sense strategy is backed up by numerous studies.
Get out of automatic pilot. Implementing any of the Everyday Ways to control portions will find it easier to stay near your ideal calorie intake. Some ways will be easier than others; the point is to select ways that work for you. Keep in mind that there are powerful external forces tricking your brain into making choices for you.
By consciously implementing an everyday way, you are taking your brain out of automatic pilot. The more you use the new ways, the more it becomes second nature. Yes, your brain learns at your direction and you gain more control over the amount of food you consume.
It takes some discipline and mental effort but considering the health consequences of over-eating, it is a small price to pay.