While I was vacationing in France a few weeks ago, my step-brother, Gerry Patterson who lives in Provence, France (and is also an avid cyclist) was on vacation in Eastern Canada celebrating his mother’s 80th birthday (my step-mother). He returned to France the day before I departed back to Calgary, so we managed to enjoy a dinner together in Nice, France with my daughter Nicole, who lives in London England. I guess travel is in the family genes.
Although we shared stories of our recent travels, we spoke at length about the differences between the European and North American cultures. Since we were eating dinner at one of the many outstanding outdoor restaurants you will find in any French city, town or village, the topic of diet, food quality, and portion sizes came up. Gerry’s observations after living in France for a few years and Tokyo for years before that was how large the food portions were in Canada, and of course, the resulting larger size of Canadians as a whole. My observation while in France was opposite to his Canadian experience. I was impressed how sensible (as in smaller) the food portions were and how thin the French people are.
Less than two weeks after retuning back home to Calgary, I came across a couple articles that speak directly to the observations both Gerry and I had while he was in Canada and I in his new home of France. I alluded to this topic briefly in my blog post last week when I compared the difference in lifestyle attitudes between France and North America. I’ve combined the content from both articles and have presented it below.
Our Ever-Growing Portion Sizes
With bucket-sized soft drinks, bagels the size of baseballs, and burgers that you can barely get your mouth around, it's no wonder that, according to the CDC, one-third of adult North Americans are currently obese. In the last 20+ years portions have ballooned — and as a nation, we've been getting fatter right along with them. From 1980 to 2008, obesity rates doubled for adults and tripled for children.
Thanks to the National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute, we can take a peek back at what portions looked like 20+ years ago and compare that to what they look like now. Hint? They've gotten a lot, lot bigger.
Portion Sizes 20+ Years Ago vs. Today
Two Slices of Pizza
Twenty years ago Today
500 calories 850 calories
Note: Those extra 350 calories, if eaten a two times a month, would put on two extra pounds a year, or forty pounds in the next two decades.
Then: 3-inch diameter, 140 calories Now: 6-inch diameter, 350 calories
Note: Because portions are now so large, it’s hard to understand what a “serving size” is supposed to be. Today’s bagel counts for three servings of bread, but many of us would consider it one serving. Larger sizes at restaurants have also contributed to larger sizes when eating at home. A study comparing eating habits today with twenty years ago found that participants poured themselves about 20 percent more cornflakes and 30 percent more milk than twenty years ago.
Fast Food Cheeseburgers
Then: 333 calories Now: 590 Calories
Note: According to a 2007 paper published in the Journal of Public Health Policy, portion sizes offered by fast food chains are two to five times larger than when first introduced. When McDonald’s first started in 1955, its only hamburger weighed around 1.6 ounces; now, the largest hamburger patty weighs 8 ounces, an increase of 500 percent. And while a Big Mac used to be considered big, it’s on the smaller side of many burger options. At Burger King, you can get the Triple Whopper; at Ruby Tuesday’s there’s the Colossal Burger; and Carl’s Junior has the Western Bacon Six Dollar Burger.
Cup of Coffee
Note: When people ordered a coffee two decades ago, they weren’t given as many size options—a standard cup of “Joe” was eight ounces, the size of a small coffee cup. Nowadays, most of us feel like we don’t get our money’s worth unless the cup is at least twelve ounces; it’s not unusual to see thirty-two ounce coffee cups, four times the size they used to be. When made into a mocha, the morning coffee has as many calories as a full meal.
Note: We don’t have to eat those extra 360 calories in the tub of popcorn, but that’s easier said than (not) done. Studies indicate that when given food in larger containers, people will consume more. In a 1996 Cornell University study, people in a movie theater ate from either medium (120g) or large (240g) buckets of popcorn, and then divided into two groups based on whether they liked the taste of the popcorn. The results: people with the large size ate more than those with the medium size, regardless of how participants rated the taste of the popcorn.
Original 8-ounce bottle 12 ounce can 20-ounce bottle
97 calories 145 calories 242 calories
Note: While the 12-ounce can used to be the most common soda option, many stores now carry only the 20-ounce plastic bottle, which contains 2.5 servings of soda. When presented with these larger sizes, humans have a hard time regulating our intake or figuring out what a serving size is supposed to be. A 2004 study, published in Appetite, gave people potato chips packaged in bags that looked the same, but increased in size. As package size increased, so did consumption; subjects ate up to 37 percent more with the bigger bags. Furthermore, when they ate dinner later that day, they did not reduce their food consumption to compensate for increased snack calories—a recipe for weight gain.
Note: It’s not just food portions that have increased; plate, bowl, and cup sizes have as well. In the 1960's the standard size of a dinner plate was 9"; in the 1980's your dinner plate grew to 11" and today the average new dinner plate is a whopping 14". Dinner plates aren't the only thing that's grown; cup and bowl sizes have also increased. Larger eating containers can influence how much people eat. A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that when people were given larger bowls and spoons they served themselves larger portions and tended to eat the whole portion.
Note: We North Americans love to get the most bang for our buck. When confronted with a 32-ounce drink for 99 cents versus a 44-ounce drink for ten cents more, the decision is easy. You’d have to be a sucker not to go big. But our ability to get the most out of our dollar doesn’t always serve us well. Value pricing, which gets us a lot more food or drink for just a little increase in price, makes sense from an economic standpoint, but is sabotage from a health standpoint. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that Americans consume around 10 percent more calories than they did in the 1970s. Given no change in physical activity, this equates to around 200 extra calories per day, or 20 pounds a year.
A Few Suggestions How to Manage Your Portions
Because we don't live in Europe or Asia where portions are healthy and sensible, it’s up to us to manage portions and avoid unknowingly over eating. Here are 10 tips to ensure you’re consuming healthy portions:
- Avoid eating at fast food restaurants all together and limit the number of times you frequent your favorite “proper-meal-type” restaurant. Remember, restaurants are focused on satisfying your taste-buds, not your nutritional needs.
- When dining out, ask your server to package up half of your entree in to-go container when he brings your meal. Chances are you won't open that container and eat the rest of it there and then.
- Drink a glass of ice cold water as soon as you sit down before your meal. Or, enjoy a bowl of broth-based soup just before your entree.
- When eating at home, precede your meal with an apple, raw vegetables or a salad. Doing so will curb your appetite and give your diet a fiber boost.
- Learn how to “eyeball” basic portion sizes with common recognizable items.
- Keep your blood sugar (and your appetite) at an even keel all day long by not going any longer than 5 hours without having something to eat, and be mindful of portion size.
- Use smaller plates, cups, bowls and cutlery. Smaller the plate, smaller the portion.
- Never eat snacks directly out of the package, as there is a great temptation to consume far more then the recommended portion.
- Exercise! When you feel a binge coming on, exercise is a great way to elevate your mood and get your mind off food. It also relieves stress, which is known to lead to binge eating.
- Visit France, or just about anywhere in Europe for a vacation and enjoy healthy food and healthy portions.
Enjoy the Ride….Rob