For the past six months I’ve been traveling around our nation, and one of my more keen observations is our ability to eat — and eat — and eat. We bow down to the “all-you-can-eat” buffet, the super-sized menu, and restaurants that serve elephant sized #portions. It seems that #eating a lot of #food has become somewhat of a national pastime — a sort of no holds barred approach to eating anything and everything. We have pie eating contests, hot dog eating contests, and other types of “competitive eating” — all in the name of good fun. There is even an International Federation of Competitive Eating as well as a television special called The Glutton Bowl. And when it comes to portions, “just pile it on” seems to be our motto.
The problem is that all these huge portion sizes are helping to contribute to a growing national crisis — the epidemic of being overweight or obese. In fact, a study just released by the National Center for Health Statistics cites one of the major causes of obesity in the United States as increased portion sizes.
If everything we’re served is bigger, larger, and just plain “more,” how are we — mere mortals — supposed to determine how much is “okay” to eat? How about the “serving size” listed on the #nutrition labels of the food we buy?
Well, the obvious assumption is that the serving size on the food label is a recommendation by the government as to what size portion a person should eat, as opposed to what a person would typically eat — but that’s just not the case.
In an effort to create a more accurate food label, the government, via the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, started requiring food manufacturers to base serving sizes on “Reference Amounts.” These are supposed to “reflect the amount of food customarily consumed per eating occasion.”
The problem is that these reference amounts are based on data from a national food consumption survey that was performed by simply asking a person how much of a particular food they normally eat. How accurate could that be? Even a spokesperson for the FDA admitted sheepishly that these surveys are not the best at determining what an actual serving would be for a consumer.
Who are those serving sizes for anyway? When you actually tell someone what a portion of ice cream or cereal is supposed to be — well, they laugh. “Two ounces? Who is that for — a squirrel?”
“It is highly unlikely that most consumers are aware of the significant lack of a relationship between ‘serving size’ as used in most dietary recommendations [e.g. the US Dietary Guidelines] and portions individuals are served commercially,” says Cutberto Garza, MD, PhD, Professor of Nutritional Science at Cornell University.
With current food labeling, you can get a box of Kashi’s Cinna-Raisin Crunch with a serving size of 1 cup and 150 calories per serving, whereas Kashi’s Go Lean is based on a serving size of 3/4 of a cup and is 120 calories per serving. At first glance, it seems that the Cinna-Raisin Crunch has more calories, but in reality it has less. It’s important to be extra careful about serving sizes, and be conscious of what you’re consuming.
“It might be simpler for the consumer if the food nutrition labels had some uniformity — for example, all nutrients in cereal expressed per 100 grams, making it much easier to compare items. Additionally, having a ‘suggested or recommended serving size’ would give the consumer advice on portion size that they need to make healthy food choices,” says Barbara Schneeman, PhD, Professor of Nutrition at the University of California, Davis.
Okay, pop #quiz.
1) 1/2 cup of cooked pasta or rice is the equivalent size to:
a) a ping-pong ball.
b) a stamp.
c) a small lap top computer.
d) your fist.
2) 1 cup of cereal is the equivalent size to:
a) a hardcover book.
b) a doorknob.
c) a matchbook.
d) a baseball.
3) What is the percentage of Americans who usually eat everything or almost everything on their plates, according to a 2001 survey by the American Institute for Cancer Research?
4) Which of the following findings are true, according to a study by New York University’s Lisa Young, PhD and Marion Nestle, PhD as published in the American Journal of Public Health?
a) Cookies were as much as 7 times standard portion sizes.
b) Servings of cooked pasta were often nearly 5 times standard portion sizes.
c) Muffins weighed in at over 3 times standard portion sizes.
d) All of the above.
5) Which of the following observations by Melanie Polk, RD, Director of Nutrition Education at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), are true?
a) The American croissant contains about 100 more calories than the one made in France.
b) When the bagel was introduced in the U.S., it weighed 1 1/2 ounces and contained 116 calories. Today the average bagel weighs approximately 4 1/2 ounces and can contain over 300 calories.
c) In Mexico, a quesadilla is a 5-inch tortilla containing around 540 calories and 32 grams of fat. The American quesadilla is typically 10 inches and often contains over 1,200 calories and 70 grams of fat.
d) All of the above.
6) True or False: As long as the food you eat is healthy, you don’t need to worry about portion size.
7) True or False: Since protein foods, such as eggs, fish, meat, poultry and cheese don’t contribute carbohydrates, you can eat all the protein foods you want.
8) True or False: A portion of food served in a restaurant is typically what a person should eat in one sitting.
Answers: 1)D 2)D 3)C 4)D 5)D 6)False 7)False 8)False