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.