According to a 2007 report from the Trust for America’s Health, the incidence of obesity rose in 31 states in 2006, and no state saw a decrease. Unfortunately, as Americans struggle with weight management issues, the food industry and restaurants continue to offer larger and larger portions. Even dishware is larger. Since 1960 the average surface area of a dinner plate has increased by 36 percent. And studies clearly indicate that the more food that is put in front of people, the more they eat.
So why have portions grown so large in the past few decades? One of the main reasons is that America is blessed with an abundant food supply, so food is relatively inexpensive. However, labor is not. It’s cheap to make a bigger muffin and charge more.
Why do larger portions cause us to overeat? Most of us remember our parents saying “clean your plate,” and larger portions suggest to us that a bigger serving is the appropriate amount to eat. It’s easy to eat more when more is offered. Think about it. Do you really feel much fuller if you have 4 oz. of roast beef versus 3 oz.? That extra ounce a day can cause a weight gain of approximately 8 pounds in one year.
As a dietitian, I work with clients to help them understand portion control. But research indicates that education alone will not work. That’s what Prof. Brian Wansink of Cornell University figured out. He brought together 65 highly motivated students and spent 90 minutes explaining that if they were presented with a one-gallon bowl of snack mix, they would eat more than if they were presented with two half-gallon bowls. Six weeks later these same students were invited to a Super Bowl party. Half the students were led to a room where a one-gallon bowl of snack mix was served, and the other half went to a room where two half-gallon bowls were served. Despite their lesson with Prof. Wansink, the group presented with the one-gallon bowl served themselves 53 percent more snack mix than the other group and ate most of what they took. After the event they were asked if the size of the bowl influenced the amount they ate. All but two said it had no effect. So despite being educated about portion size, these students still ate more when they were presented with a larger bowl.
What’s the lesson here? In order to change our behavior, we need to promote the habit of eating smaller portions.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Use smaller plates and bowls.
- When eating at a restaurant, split a meal, or ask for a doggie bag and put half your meal away before you start eating.
- Buy individually packaged snacks or repackage large bags into smaller containers.
Taking an active role in shaping our eating environment can help us downsize our supersized appetites.