Control Your Own Portions

Pizza Pizza | Photo: lyrandian/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Consider the fuel tank of your car. It is a finite space. Once you put the maximum amount of gas in, you can't add anymore. Even if you happen to go a few squeezes of the pump past what the nozzle's sensor recommends -- in order to, you know, inch the bill a bit closer to an even dollar amount -- all that will happen is the tank will spill over and gas will soak your shoes.

Now consider your stomach. As far as body-to-car analogies go, it's as close to a one-to-one comparison as we can get. The stomach is the body's fuel tank. Put food (gas) in there, it converts it to energy, and off you go. But the problem with the comparison, the thing where we all get in trouble, is that it's a much more pliable tank. It's technically a finite space, but you can stretch those limits. You can fill it up way past the point where it would spill over without getting your shoes filthy. And that's the problem.

This article over at Grist.org about how portion sizes have dramatically increased over the years got me thinking about that key difference.

Remember as a child how your parents would demand you clean off your dinner plate (mostly meaning those last remaining vegetables) before leaving the table? That kind of thing sticks with you. It's so ingrained in our mind that now when we order dinner at a restaurant, our subconscious goal is to eat everything that comes. This used to not big of a deal back in the day, but that was before portion sizes started getting out of control. Among the shock stats in the Grist piece:

- From 1982 to 2002, the average pizza slice grew 70 percent in calories. - The average chicken Caesar salad doubled in calories. - The average chocolate chip cookie quadrupled in calories. - Portion sizes can be two to eight times larger than USDA or FDA standard serving sizes. - Our plates have grown to hold all those portions, too. The surface area of the average dinner plate expanded by 36 percent between 1960 and 2007.

Now it's not surprising something like this happened; this is what you get in an unchecked free market system. People will shop around for the best deal, see they're getting a more bang for their buck at the pizza parlor across the street (with 20-inch pies) than the one next door (with their meager 16-inchers), and that business will survive and thrive, the other will fail and die out, and you have consumer-based natural selection as a result.

(Which isn't to say that government regulations are the answer here: despite what New York did with the Big Gulp-sized drinks, that kind of regulation isn't happening nation-wide, or in most cities, anytime soon.)

So, if restaurants aren't going to lower portion sizes on their own -- and why would they? There's no incentive to if others aren't playing by the same rules, kind of like the '90s steroid conundrum in baseball: if everyone else is doing it, can you afford not to? -- and if the government isn't going to step in, then it's up to us, the consumer, to do so.

On a protest level, this means only eating at places that give us reasonable portion sizes, using our dollars to cast a vote. But on a more personal and health-conscious level, this means going into a meal knowing it's actually going to be more than a meal. It means sitting down, looking at that plate of food in front of you, and mentally tricking yourself into thinking that it's actually 1.5 meals you're looking at there. It means thinking about the doggy bag before even getting full. It means de-programming yourself. But most of all, it means listening to your body. and knowing when its tank is full. We can do it.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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