f you want to see how inflated our portion sizes have become, don’t go to the supermarket – head to an antique shop. You spot a tiny goblet clearly designed for a doll, only to be told it is a “wine glass”. What look like side plates turn out to be dinner plates. The real side plates resemble saucers.
Back in a modern kitchen, you suddenly notice how vast everything is – 28cm has become a normal diameter for a dinner plate, which in the 1950s would have been 25cm. Just because we are eating off these great expanses of china does not of course mean that we have to serve ourselves bigger portions. But as it happens, we usually do. Brian Wansink is a psychologist (author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think) who has done numerous experiments to prove what you would hope common sense might already tell us: that oversized tableware makes us consume bigger portions. A large ice-cream scoop makes you take more ice-cream; a short, squat glass makes you pour more juice. Because it doesn’t look like much, we still feel we are consuming roughly the same amount. Wansink calls this the size-contrast illusion. The “real danger of these kitchen traps”, writes Wansink, is that “almost every single person in the world believes they’re immune to them”.
In fact, it seems that the only people who are immune to big portions are tiny children. Up until the age of three or four, children have an enviable ability to stop eating when they are full. After that age, this self-regulation of hunger is lost, and sometimes never relearned. This is a cross-cultural phenomenon, from London to Beijing. One study from the US found that when three-year olds were served small, medium and larger portions of macaroni cheese, they always ate roughly the same amount. By contrast, five-year-olds ate a lot more when the portion of macaroni cheese was oversized.
In a world where food is ever-present, many of us have become like Alice in Wonderland, controlled by cakes that say Eat Me and bottles that say Drink Me. As the nutritionist Marion Nestle remarked 10 years ago in her book, What to Eat: “It is human nature to eat when presented with food, and to eat more when presented with more food.” The trouble is that we are pushed more food, more often, every day. In 2013, the British Heart Foundation published a report called Portion Distortion on how portion sizes in Britain have changed since 1993. Back then, the average American-style muffin weighed 85g, whereas 20 years later it was not uncommon to find muffins weighing 130g. Ready meals have also ballooned in size, with chicken pies expanding by 49% and the average shepherd’s pie nearly doubling in size since 1993 (from 210g to 400g). To overeat in such an environment may be less about lacking willpower than being set in your ways. Food psychologists talk about “unit bias” meaning that we are inclined to think that a portion equals one of something, no matter what the size. Even when it’s the 2,000-calorie single slice of pizza that nutritionists managed to buy in New York City: a whole day’s worth of calories in a single snack.
But while portions in cafes and restaurants are often now gargantuan, the recommended portions on food packets may be unrealistically small. For most breakfast cereals, the “serving size” across the EU is 30g. In a Kellogg’s Variety pack, the Corn Flakes are just 17g. To my 16-year-old son, this is hardly more than a mouthful (admittedly, he is 6ft 11in). A couple of years ago, I interviewed a spokesperson for Kellogg’s, who said that these tiny recommended sizes are aimed at children but admitted that adults do “eat a bit more”. They certainly do. A study in 2013 found that when 140 British adults in Southend and Birmingham were asked to pour out a normal bowl of cornflakes, 88% of participants took more than 30g. The average was 44g.
Our confusion over portions in Britain is linked to the fact that we have lost so many of our basic instincts about cooking. When the Department of Health tells us that the ideal portion of broccoli is “two spears” whereas for cauliflower it is “eight florets”, it doesn’t bear much relation to ordinary meals. By contrast, a 2010 survey of nearly 1,500 elderly South Koreans found that there was still a remarkable level of convergence over how much to eat of particular foods, because of traditional cuisine. Almost all the Koreans in the survey agreed that a portion of polished white rice was 75g; sweet potato was 120g; spinach was a hefty 40g; and roasted white sesame seeds was 1g.
Without this kind of shared knowledge to guide us, we remain at the mercy of the food industry. In a state of overabundance, food companies have two possible strategies. One is to sell us smaller portions at higher prices – this January, Unilever announced that it was cutting the size of ice-creams such as Magnum and Cornetto by up to a third (though, needless to say, it did not bring the prices down by the same margin). The other, more universal, approach is to attempt to sell us more food. In 1988, you could only buy a Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate bar in a single size: 54g. Now, you can buy it as 49g, 110g, 200g and 360g. Compared with the truly colossal 360g bar, the still-massive 110g looks almost modest.
Our problem with portions is partly this: no one likes the concept of “less”. We are conditioned from childhood onwards to yearn for the overflowing glass and the laden table. An easy way to address this at home is simply to use smaller tableware. Often at the end of a meal, I am not really hungry but yearn for something sweet. I find that if I get a tiny dipping bowl and pile it high with whatever I desire – dense chocolate brownies, sticky halva – I feel satisfied, even with a tiny portion. When I first tried this, it felt silly. Could I really be fooled by a plate? Yes. I could. And so could you. Last year, researchers at Cambridge University led by Theresa Marteau, director of the behaviour and health research unit, conducted an experiment in a local Cambridge pub called The Pint Shop. The researchers found that when larger glassware was used (370ml compared with 300ml), sales of a standard 175ml measure of wine went up by 9%. Marteau, whose research focuses on how people can be encouraged to adopt healthier behaviours, noted that the larger glasses made people feel they were drinking less, and so they gulped the wine faster. Marteau’s hope is that government will look at studies such as this and adopt policies to reduce the availability of large portions. The short-term effect of the study has been rather different, however. Having seen the impact on sales, The Pint Shop is now permanently serving its wine in larger glasses.
My approach to portion control is, like my sizable thighs, entirely hereditary. I got it from my parents. They were both raised in meagre surroundings during the second world war, with food in short supply and so, when they became parents, they went the other way. They made sure the table was always full. This was combined with the Jewish tendency – even among those Jews with no interest in God or his weird picky dietary laws – to overcater. Somewhere deep in the DNA is imprinted the message that tomorrow the Cossacks might be coming and so now you must eat, and who knows whether the Rosenbaums might be coming round needing to be fed, too.
Certainly, my late mother regarded enough food just for the members of the family as not quite enough, and I can’t help feeling the same way. I freely admit to having no idea what reasonable portion control is. When dinner involves individual items – a pork chop each, say, or a fillet of fish – I end up feeling edgy, for there is no excuse to cook more of them than the number of people eating. I am happier when it’s a one-pot dish, a stew or a ragu for pasta, where volume is allowable and leftovers an absolute certainty, even if as a family we do it justice. I did not get to where I am today by being blessed lavishly with self-control. What kind of restaurant critic would that be?
To be fair, mine is a house of home workers, so nothing gets wasted; last night’s overcatering is merely today’s fridge lunch. That said, there are irritations. I should by now know how much rice or pasta to cook for four people. They even tell you on the side of the pack. Do I pay attention to such things? Do I hell. Our fridge is always stacked with little white bowls of last night’s carbs. One day I’ll learn. Possibly.
Jay’s typical food day
Breakfast will usually consist of granola, yoghurt and milk. And a bucket of coffee (milk, no sugar), followed by a second bucket of coffee. For lunch, I’ll have some leftover roast chicken and salad, if I’m feeling virtuous. Cheese on toast, if I’m not. For dinner, I’ll typically make something like a Thai green curry, using four chicken breasts, cauliflower and green beans, and serve it with white rice, which I tend to avoid myself. I cook too much, so some ends up in the fridge. If it’s a drinking night, I’ll definitely have three 175ml glasses of white wine. And then, if I’ve had the wine, a mini-Magnum. One leads to the other.
I get kicks from feeding people. But I’m intrinsically greedy, too, so I need to be quite careful when serving up at home – if I’m feeding myself and my boyfriend, I’ve been known to look at our dinner plates and take the more heaving of the two plates. Even serving the same amount on each plate is actually crazy – I may be stocky and need a lot of fuel (I’m quite buzzy and run around a lot), but he’s 6ft 6in.
When I eat at home, my plate is mostly whole grains, pulses and vegetables. I eat lots of nuts, mostly cashews, an avocado a day. I’m getting more into things like tofu and tempeh, too, so serving size is of less importance there. I eat fish a couple of times a week and each year I’m eating less and less meat and dairy. Once a week I’ll make a Sunday roast with a big joint, or a whole chicken, and then use the remaining meat in dishes throughout the week. I’m really good with leftovers and I take solace in batch cooking, specifically to gauge how much food I’m meant to be eating – so, if I’m making a stew, I will portion it up into cartons to store in the freezer. But as a rule I don’t have food left on my plate – I pretty much always finish what I’ve served, eating until I’m bursting. Feeling full makes me feel sane.
Eating out is a minefield. I tend to go overboard – my friends have stopped me ordering now as I want to try different things and I can put food away at a jaw-dropping rate. I never really question whether this is going to affect my weight or health because when I line it up with how I eat at home, it ends up pretty balanced. I question my alcohol consumption, but that’s it.
Gizzi’s typical food day: For breakfast I’ll have two eggs, normally fried with half an avocado, and either a spicy tomato sauce and small corn tortilla, or loads of sauted spinach and mushrooms with a spot of creme fraiche. And a cappuccino. Mid-morning, I have a green juice, and I drink lots of water. Lunch is pasta with either a tomato-based sauce such as puttanesca or a cavolo nero, chili and anchovy pesto (I weigh 80g of good durum wheat pasta but add too much sauce and cheese). I don’t really snack but feed occasional epic chocolate cravings when they come. For dinner, I’ll have a recipe I’ve been developing – maybe a chicken stew with chorizo and barley and a green salad. And a decent glass of wine, four or five days a week.
Tamal Ray: ‘It’s difficult to not end up comfort eating in front of the telly’
Being a bit of a chubby kid, portion control wasn’t something I was particularly good at, and even now, I haven’t really nailed it. I’m totally incapable of self-control anywhere that has free food or a buffet, hoovering it all up like I’m still a hungry student surviving on baked beans and bits of stale bread. I’m terrible in restaurants, too. I still get really excited at the prospect of eating out, so I find it difficult not to go the whole way and have three courses. It’s almost a relief if the plates of food arrive with measly portions – at least I know that I won’t be leaving the dinner table uncomfortably full.
I grew up in a Bengali household, a culture where moderation doesn’t fit easily with our love of food. In a Bengali meal you’ll typically have a large plate with rice surrounded by a few small bowls each containing a different dish: dahl, vegetables, fish and maybe some meat. Each dish is supposed to be enjoyed individually with some rice, as eating them together would be considered to ruin the flavours.
When cooking for myself, I try to stay a bit more health conscious by sticking to a few simple rules. If the plate is divided up into vegetables, carbs and protein, then the vegetables should make up the biggest section on the plate. However, a quick browse of the latest health advice on portion control tells me something I could have already guessed myself: I eat too much meat. With a single chicken leg potentially being twice as much as my daily recommended intake of meat, it’s easy to end up overindulging. The solution is something I’ve been meaning to do for a while: cook more meals with vegetables as the stars rather than as the unimaginative side dish to the meat.
As I like to take my time when cooking, I tend to make large amounts that will last for a few meals. There’s an obvious temptation to overeat when faced with a big pot of food and a hungry stomach, so I try to decide on a sensible amount to plate up and never go back for seconds. Honestly though, arriving home mid-week, knackered and starving, it’s difficult to stick to the rules and not end up comfort eating in front of the telly.
Tamal’s typical food day: breakfast: a bowl of porridge if I’ve woken up early enough. More likely to be a slice of toast eaten on the drive to work. Morning snack: Overpriced cup of coffee. Lunch: roast chicken salad with plenty of leaves and a flapjack. Dinner: lamb meatballs with rice and a kale and butternut squash curry. Snacks: A couple of kiwi fruit and some yoghurt with honey and raisins.
Source - http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/apr/25/problem-portions-eating-too-much-food-control-cutting-down