Want a Healthy Diet? Reduce Portion Sizes: Foodie Underground


ColumnA healthy diet comes with smart portions.

A few weeks ago I was on an early flight. We’re talking really, super early. So early that I decided against buying a coffee because it would keep me from sleeping on the plane. I opted for a vegan, wheat free oatmeal muffin instead – by this alone you should be able to guess that this was the Portland airport. Standing in line I listened to what my fellow early morning travelers ordered. The two orders in front of me made me nearly fall over:

1. One 16-ounce black forest mocha (“black forest” because there were cherries involved apparently)… with whipped cream

2. One 16-ounce iced caramel macchiato… with whipped cream

It was 4:45 am.

I am of the personal opinion that no one ever needs an iced caramel macchiato with whipped cream, but we’ll put that opinion aside for now. Even if you are behind the occasional crazy coffee drink I think we can all agree that no one needs one at 4:45 in the morning.

A few days later I was on my return flight. Stuck again in an airport without any food in my bag, I had to find lunch. The best I could do was a burrito with black beans, rice and guacamole. You can do worse in an airport. But then the burrito came out and I realized that it was almost the size of my head. I sighed. And then even though I knew better, ended up eating the whole thing.

I live in France, and since moving I have found that the return to American restaurants can be glorious and scary all at the same time. There are tacos! And huge breakfast menus! And a bunch of vegetarian options! But everything comes on plates that could seemingly feed a family of four. I have had numerous friends from Europe over the years say to me, “everything in the U.S. is so… big.”

It’s true. A big meal once in awhile is one thing- everyone loves a good Thanksgiving buffet now don’t they? – but as a part of our regular eating habits? Our custom of large portion sizes is detrimental to our path towards a healthy diet. And those portion sizes are growing.

Since the 1950s the average restaurant meal has quadrupled in size. That has health implications. Over the last few decades, the portions of food served out of the home have gotten bigger, and this trend has been shown to correspond with the rise in obesity. The bigger the portions get, the fatter we get.

For example, what did a coffee order look like twenty, even ten years ago? Black, maybe with some cream. As an 8-ounce drink that would have set you back about 45 calories. But that grande 16-ounce mocha today? 330 calories.

The average hamburger 20 years ago came in at around 333 calories. Today it’s at around 590.

You get the idea.

Take a look at any fast food menu and there’s a super duper, extra huge option. And all those enormous fast food items that have grown in the last couple of decades also happen to be heavily marketed. The industrial food world wants you eating more food. It’s good for business.

While it may be nice to think that we’re living in a time of heightened health consciousness, you still have chains like Taco Bell releasing new, and huge, items to seduce the hungry masses. Just like you don’t need a 16-ounce mocha with whipped cream for breakfast, you also don’t need a massive waffle taco.

Should these companies and chains continue to be allowed to produce such items with no ramifications? After all, this is the stuff that’s fueling obesity and heart attacks.

If we want to reduce obesity and put ourselves on track towards a healthier diet, maybe it’s time to consider regulating portion size. Obesity is after all a public health epidemic, and as such, shouldn’t we be taking the right steps to deal with it?

Food for thought: food labels are based off of carefully calculated dietary guidelines, but often the guidelines is for an amount of food that is much smaller than what you are getting served. We live in a free market but when the free market is making us sick, it could be time to think about changing how it operates.

In the meantime, it could be the moment for all of us to think about how much we’re eating and how much we really need. Get the small option when you can, avoid fast food at all costs. After all, your life depends on it.

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This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at www.foodieunderground.com.

Image: Kevin Dooley

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.