Food: How Much is TOO Much?

By Jane Wark

How often do you feel you have eaten too much? For most people, the answer is, "too often." The fact is, the size of our meals has been increasing in recent years to beyond what is considered healthy. The same goes for beverages - we are drinking larger and larger bottles of sweetened drinks. Most of us have a pretty good idea of what to eat to stay healthy. But we are losing track of how much we need to eat.

Portion sizes in North American restaurants have grown dramatically in recent years. A typical restaurant meal now provides 1,000 calories. The average woman needs about 2,000 calories a day, and men need slightly more. Eating in a restaurant can load you up with half a day's calories in just one meal.

Studies have shown that when we are served larger portions, we unwittingly eat more. One such study involved researchers giving adults either an extra large bag of popcorn or a small one. The participants then watched a movie. After the movie, researchers measured the amount of popcorn participants ate. Those given the extra large bag ate 40 - 50% more popcorn than those given the small bag. Yet both groups thought they ate the same amount of popcorn.

When we eat from a larger container, we inevitably eat more food. For example, we tend to finish our plateful of food, regardless of how large the plate is. Plates, muffin tins, fry containers and drink containers have all increased in size in the last few years. Unfortunately, so have our waistlines. Astonishingly, over 60% of adults and 13% of children in North America are overweight or obese.

Soft drinks have dramatically increased in size. When colas first appeared on the market, the bottles were 6oz and provided about 60 calories. A bottle of pop has now tripled in size to 20 oz and 200 calories. Buy a soft drink at a convenience store and you can get up to 64 oz and 700 calories, in a cup.

Let's compare how a fast food meal has changed. Forty years ago, an adult typically ordered a hamburger, small fries and regular pop, providing about 600 calories. This same meal is now marketed to children. The typical meal today consists of a burger that is over double the size, fries that have nearly tripled in size, and a drink that has grown from 12 oz to a whopping 30 oz. This meal adds up to an astonishing 1500 calories.

Why is the food industry making such large servings? To increase profits. Sugar and many other foods are cheap. Labor and rent make up a larger portion of expenses to the food industry. More and more people are selecting foods based on the portion size and value for dollar, rather than choosing a healthy and often more flavorful meal. But do we really want to pay someone to make us fat?

In Europe, appetites are a little different. France's obesity rate is only 7%. Not surprisingly, portion sizes are significantly smaller. For example, fast food chains in France sell smaller chicken burgers than they do in North America. Europeans are often shocked when they see the size of meals in North American restaurants.

Ever wonder why you get smaller portions in fancier restaurants? Because the chefs know that if you eat too much, your satisfaction goes down. With a smaller portion you are more likely to remember how delicious the food is. You may also have room for dessert. And, you will probably leave the restaurant feeling better than you would if you were overstuffed.

Tips for Eating Less

  • Use a smaller plate or bowl, and serve your drinks in a tall thin glass rather than a short one.

  • Serve yourself a smaller portion at meals. Take more only if you are still hungry.

  • Don't feel the need to "finish your plate". Also, don't push your children to finish their plate.

  • Stop eating when you are comfortably full, not overstuffed.

  • If you buy a sweetened drink in a bottle, drink half of it and save the rest for another day.

  • Eat half a large muffin and save the other half for the next day.

Tips for Eating in Restaurants

  • Consider sharing a meal between two people, or eating half the meal and taking half home.

  • Order from the menu rather than an "All You Can Eat" buffet

  • When ordering a soft drink, order a small. Better yet, drink water.

Not only can you save your waistline by eating less, but you can also save a few dollars. Remember to stop eating a meal when you feel full, not overstuffed. And don't forget to be active.

Jane Wark is a Community Nutritionist with the Fraser Health Authority in British Columbia, Canada. She can be reached at 604-864-3400.



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