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Why Portion Sizes Won’t Fix America’s Obesity Epidemic

Why Portion Sizes Won’t Fix America’s Obesity Epidemic

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, it’s 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, it’s 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.

Related
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Portions Have Grown This Much in 60 Years

Read more: Diet & Nutrition, Eating for Health, Food, Health, , ,

Katherine Martinko

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Kara, selected from TreeHugger

Planet Green is the multi-platform media destination devoted to the environment and dedicated to helping people understand how humans impact the planet and how to live a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle. Its two robust websites, planetgreen.com and TreeHugger.com, offer original, inspiring, and entertaining content related to how we can evolve to live a better, brighter future. Planet Green is a division of Discovery Communications.

81 comments

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12:33AM PST on Jan 17, 2014

TY

2:28PM PST on Jan 5, 2014

american portions are very big so making some smaller surely would help even if only a little bit and of course better ingredients

9:55AM PST on Jan 4, 2014

thanks....individual responsibility is the key

11:31PM PST on Jan 3, 2014

portion size is one thing, but also ingredients like high fructose corn syrup that has a bad effect on the body. It actually causes a person to feel hungry. I notice they put it in everything and it is very hard to avoid in bought products. If you have time to make your own foods and room enough to store them, you can try to avoid it.

8:10PM PST on Jan 3, 2014

Portion sizes are a big part indeed, but it's really also about the type of food, the content, frequecncy of consumption and how it's prepared. All of those combined are what create the whole picture in terms of diet.

8:01PM PST on Jan 3, 2014

When did people stop believing in personal responsibility?!

6:25PM PST on Jan 3, 2014

It is not just how much we eat it is also what we eat and how little we actually move. If moving your fingers across the keyboard is the extent of your physical activity (along with moving the fork to your mouth) you have a serious problem that will not be readily solved. You can eat healthy but never get sufficient exercise to utilize the calories you consume. You may also exercise quite a bit but eat junk food day and night and you will eat yourself into an early cardio-vascular disease or two....

6:14PM PST on Jan 3, 2014

I resent being called an obese American. Becasue I am not. Most FAT people I see in my area are black ( oh right now you are gonna tell me it's cause they are poor and all that happy horse poop.

Who cares? Why make fat people feel bad about being fat?
I have lost 15 pounds working in the Walmart Deli the past 3 months....like really working, not sitting on my butt like I am right now or shopping or texting.l

5:55PM PST on Jan 3, 2014

Disagree.

Portion size is a key.

If you don't believe it just check out Nutra System

5:54PM PST on Jan 3, 2014

There is much more that's causing obesity in the USA then many people are aware of. Yes children as well as adults need to be more physically activity. Growth hormones are given to food animals for human consumption. No one is really doing any legitimate testing on all the GMO foods out there to see what effect they have on humans and their weight. Chemicals toxic and less toxic are in everything we eat, drink, wear, and use in our daily lives. even the air we breathe has known and unknown adverse effects on our bodies. Prescription and OTC(over the counter) medicines effect us adversely including causing weight gain. Secret ingredients/undeclared ingredients, proprietary blend, nano-particles etc. Hazardous and/or toxic unknown and known chemicals used in processing/manufacturing the product and/or foodstuff. Artificial sweeteners, food coloring/dyes, flavors even many of the so-called natural ones can come from unsafe or unsavory origins. I could go on and on about what else is probably causing and/or contributing to excessive weight gain and/or obesity in this country and other countries. It's just not over eating/portion control it's also what we're eating. Food animals don't even look like they looked 30+yrs ago. Today many children don't even know what a real potato looks like(they know french fries, frozen/boxed mashed potatoes)that carrots have a leafy green top. Many have never seen first hand fruit growing on trees, berries on bushes, vegetables growing in a garden

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