Standardized Portion Sizes in Restaurants Won’t Solve America’s Obesity Epidemic

Written by Katherine Martinko

It has been suggested that America could combat its obesity epidemic by standardizing restaurant portion sizes. The idea, excerpted in this Salon article from a book called “A Big Fat Crisis” by Deborah Cohen, is that if all restaurants offered single-serving portions (i.e., a 3-ounce serving of meat) and if these portion sizes were consistent throughout the nation’s restaurants, (i.e., a burger always contains 400 calories no matter where you buy it), then it would be much easier for people to control their weight.

Alcohol is already standardized; in the U.S. you get the same 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol per 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounce shot, which supposedly makes it easier for a person to assess how much they’ve drunk and limit themselves accordingly. Cohen argues, therefore, that standardizing food would offer a similar check for calorie-hungry humans because currently “there are no stop signs that indicate when we have consumed enough.”

I think this suggestion is absurd for a number of reasons. First, its too simplistic. There are more contributing factors to obesity than eating out frequently. What about meals and snacks consumed elsewhere? What about ingredients and additives in foods? Genetic predispositions aside, obesity signifies an overall lifestyle problem, including lack of exercise and/or poor food choices that smaller portions will not negate.

Second, its impossible to create a standard. Though a long-standing mantra among dieticians and doctors has been that “a calorie is a calorie,” recent research (and scads of empirical evidence) has shown that not all calories are created equal. One hundred calories of sugar has a profoundly different effect on the body than 100 calories of broccoli, with its minerals, vitamins, fiber and low-glycemic-index (GI) carbohydrates. Calorie counts also fail to take into consideration height, weight, age, metabolism, level and type of physical activity, etc. There are so many factors that go into digesting food that it’s pointless to apply the same standard to everyone.

Third, standardizing food portions transfers the obligation of personal health from a customer to the restaurant. Policing lifestyle choices should not be a restaurant’s responsibility. Standardization would create the illusion of freeing customers from making decisions, but they’d still have to choose what they want to eat – and a cheeseburger (with white, high-GI bread, processed meat and cheese that looks suspiciously like plastic) does not cease to be a cheeseburger, no matter what size it is.

Fourth, the article suggests that the FDA and the USDA set the standard. That’s problematic, considering that those organizations, along with the AMA, are the organizations that first encouraged the high-carb, low-fat Western diet that is now destroying the health of America. In fact, Dr. Barry Sears, the man who developed the Zone Diet, which both provides a means to measure with precision and accuracy the ratios of macronutrients in a given meal, and suggests low-GI food choices to make up those meals, openly stated:

“If I want[ed] to have a battle plan [for] How to Destroy Health Care [in] America, the USDA food pyramid… would be exactly that. I can think of nothing that would accelerate the development of silent inflammation faster.”

Standardizing portion sizes won’t get us anywhere because it misses the point. What’s needed is education, which starts in homes and schools. Kids need to learn to enjoy preparing and eating healthy food. That, in turn, will lead to a healthier next generation that won’t be as inclined to eat poorly because they’ll know the wonderful feeling of healthfulness that comes from eating real food.

This post was originally published in TreeHugger

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Venabout a year ago

thanks for the article.

Oleg Kobetz
Oleg Kobetz3 years ago

Thank you

Jessica Grieshaber


Jenna Newbery
Jenna Newbery3 years ago

I don't think it is right to limit portion sizes in restaurants. I am responsible for how much I eat and I don't want any government or any authorities telling me how much I can eat. I can't afford to go to restaurants that often, and when I do I like to have a massive meal, eat whatever I feel like eating then take the rest home and save it for the next day. If I am spending that amount of money, I want to get my moneys worth. I will decide how much I choose to eat, not some stranger who has never met me before.

@Lyn R. I have already mentioned this in another comment on another article, but healthy, whole foods are more expensive than unhealthy, processed foods in many places in the western world. The reason why many obese people are generally low income earners is because it is cheaper for them to go to McDonalds than it is to buy fresh, whole foods from the grocery store. Wealthier people aren't within the healthy weight range just because they want to fit into designer clothes, it is because they can afford to buy beautiful, healthy, unprocessed foods.

Although I am not overweight, I am a low income earner (yes, I do have a job and also study full-time hoping that it will improve my situation) and I am not a big fan of junk food. There have been times where I have been starving and only had $5 in my wallet. I can't buy enough unprocessed whole foods to make a meal for that amount of money, but I can afford to buy either a McDonalds happy meal or frozen/microwave m

Ruth Ann W.
Ruth Ann W3 years ago

Sadly, there is no such thing as an easy fix. Bottom line we are the ones cramming food in our mouths. Like Karen F says...take home leftovers. And those that refuse to eat leftovers? What is up with that?

Luna Starr
luna starr3 years ago

untill people control their greed nothing will stop obesity

Nils Anders Lunde
PlsNoMessage s3 years ago


Arild Warud
Arild G3 years ago


Angela J.
Angela J3 years ago

Will the prices be half if the portion size is cut in half?

Diane C.
Past Member 3 years ago

A fair number of societies in the past had sumptuary laws--granted some were a means of exercising social control--but some were intended as curbs on keeping extravagance from getting out of hand. Whether we like it or not, "personal choice" is to some extent socially constructed and the marketing of "big gulps" suicide burritos" and eating contests does endorse gluttony and work against healthy habits inculcated at home and in schools.