Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

Portion Distortion – A French Lesson

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Deutsch: Paris: Eiffelturm und Marsfeld

Image via Wikipedia

I  teach a course called Food and Culture, which became one of my favorites.  We found that students could learn a lot about diet and health by examining the food and lifestyle habits of other countries and cultures as well as our own.   One of those countries was France.

The obesity rate in France has traditionally been low but is increasing.  Roughly 14.5 percent of the adult population – about 6.5 million people – was considered obese in 2009 compared with 8.5 percent in 1997.  Compared to the roughly 30% in the U.S., that’s not too alarming, yet.

What kept obesity at a low rate in the French culture?  Here are a few observations from a study in 2003 that compared French and American foods, restaurants, supermarket foods, cookbook recipes, and eating styles.  They weighed portions at 11 similar restaurants in Paris and Philadelphia – fast food outlets pizzerias, ice cream parlors, and ethnic restaurants.

The results?

  • The average portion size in Paris was 25% smaller than in Philly.
  • Chinese restaurants in Philly served meals that were 72% bigger than Paris Chinese restaurants.
  • A candy bar in Philly was 41% larger than the same candy bar in Paris; a carton of yogurt was 82% larger.
  • A soft drink was 52% larger; a hot dog was 63% larger.
  • Recipes from the Joy Of Cooking produced larger portions than a comparable French cookbook.
  • The French spent 22 minutes on average at their McDonald’s and the average time in Philly was 14 minutes.
  • Single-serve foods in supermarkets results – 14 of 17 items studied were larger in American stores.

Paul Rozin, Ph.D, one of the lead authors and currently a Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania Is quoted: “Many studies have shown that, if food is moderately palatable, people tend to consume what is put in front of them and generally consume more when offered more food. Much discussion of the ‘obesity epidemic’ in the US has focused on personal willpower, but our study shows that the environment also plays an important role and that people may be satisfied even if served less than they would normally eat”.

Our own portion sizes have increased in the past 20 years. For example:

  • Twenty years ago: a 1.6 oz. burger was 333 calories; now it’s 590 calories and weighs 8 oz.   Even more calories come from Triple Whoppers, Colossal Burger (Ruby Tuesday), and Carl’s Jr. has the Western Bacon Six Dollar Burger.
  • Twenty years ago: A bagel measured 3 inches in diameter and came in at 140 calories; now a typical bagel measures 5-6 inches in diameter and provides 350 calories.

It’s not only food, but our plates, bowls, and cup sizes have increased.  A standard plate size increased from 10 inches to 12 inches in the 1990’s.  A study found that when people are given larger food containers and larger spoons, they took larger amounts of ice cream and ate the whole portion.  (American Journal of Preventive Medicine).

All in all, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that people eat around 10% more calories than in the 1970s.  If physical activity does not change, that means about 200 calories a day, or about 20 pounds a year.  That’s enough to cause an “epidemic”.

To view our portion distortion is pictures, click here.

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