We’re an obedient bunch — we eat up everything on our plates, just like our mothers told us to. Problem is, over the past two decades, the portions we’re serving (and being served) have gradually crept up. Today, health experts view this ‘portion creep’ as the key to our nation’s growing weight problems. This supersizing isn’t just an American phenomenon; the problem is prevalent here in Australia, too — in all manner of ways. So how did this happen?
✪ What’s changed?
It’s fitting that the best insight into our portion creep comes from a 2011 Western Australian study into our serving sizes at dinner.
Back in the ’60s, the diameter of the average dinner plate was about 25cm (10 inches). Today, it’s more like 30cm (12 inches). It doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but according to the study, those extra centimetres can potentially see our dinner plates’ kilojoule capacity surge by roughly 60 to 100 per cent. This change would be okay if we were plating up our food in tasty measured morsels as top restaurants do — but we’re not. And numerous studies prove
that the more food we pile onto our plates, the more we eat. In fact, a recent study showed that when researchers served adults a large portion of pasta, they ate 34 per cent more than when they ate from a smaller bowl.
✪ Why don’t we just eat less?
“The idea that larger portions provide more energy may seem intuitive, but most people tend to eat whatever they’re served,” says dietitian Alice Gibson from The University of Sydney’s Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise & Eating Disorders. “We’ve become so accustomed to larger serves that a ‘normal’ portion is often much more food than we actually need.”
Indeed, we have become so used to seeing — and eating — a generous portion that we can feel disappointed or worry we’ll go hungry when we’re served a smaller piece of the pie. This may help explain why so many of us disregard the recommended serving sizes on food packaging, or simply why we overeat. We might eat a whole pizza when a healthy serve is two medium slices, for instance, or carelessly fill our breakfast bowl with double the appropriate serving size of cereal.To make things worse, food marketers and manufacturers are cleverly exploiting our anxiety and confusion. By offering the same product in a range of sizes, they’re able to charge only a little more for the larger packet, making it seem like good value. For example, when McDonald’s first opened its golden arches, it offered just one size of fries. Today, the company describes that same size as ‘small’ (1070kJ, or 256cal), and its menu features two more sizes: medium (1540kJ, or 368cal) and large (1900kJ, or 455cal), which is nearly twice the amount of the original ‘small’.
We’re drowning in drinks, too. Check the nutrition-information panel of any beverage, and you’ll notice that the recommended serving size often conflicts with the bottle’s actual size. Although a modest 175ml Coke bottle contains a mere 315kJ (75cal), the smallest Coke your corner store is likely to stock is a 600ml bottle — a whopper that’s fizzing with the unwelcome amount of 1080kJ (258cal).
✪ How everyday foods stack up
Fast food isn’t the only fare that’s getting in on the act. While some pantry staples remain unchanged, other essential basics are now jostling for more shelf space. Even the humble slice of bread is bigger than ever before. This year, official Australian Dietary Guidelines changed, reducing the recommended serving size for bread from two slices to just one. (Picturing two larger slices with extra fillings gives you the idea — that’s an old-fashioned sandwich and a half!) There’s also been a massive increase in the number of cafe snack products, many of which come in bigger sizes to start with. A standard cookie from a multipack still weighs about 10 to 12g, but a luxury cookie from a coffee shop can weigh in at a hefty 110g — and carry about 10 times the kilojoules.