Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Obesity: Get Portions Under Control

Some interesting reading on obesity today (as we munched on some of Mrs. Curmudgeon's unfortunately all too good toll house cookies).

Popular Science reviews a number of seemingly off-the-wall theories for America's obesity epidemic, concluding that many have scientific merit. These include research on links between overweight and (a) artificial sweeteners (b) lack of sleep (c) one or more viruses, and (d) BPA and other additives in plastics.

While we agree that there is sufficient plausibility to each of these theories to merit further research, there's also a lot of data that doesn't add up.

At the other end of the spectrum, we find evidence in support of a much simpler theory: that folks are eating too much and hence getting fat. A study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, reported in today's Wall Street Journal, examined the number of calories in a number of classic recipes over the years and found--no surprise here--that portion sizes have grown dramatically over the years.

The survey found that the number of calories in each recipe had increased an average of 40% over the past 70 years.

Actually, it's quite an ingeniuos--and simple--study. The researches looked at the recipes in "Joy of Cooking" from 1930 to 2006, when the latest edition came out. Of 18 recipes published in all seven editions of the volume during that period, 17 increased in calories. One (for chicken gumbo) more than doubled.

Much of the increase was simply due to larger portions. For example the brownie recipe in Joy for the 1960's and 1970's remained exactly the same in 1997, but in the earlier editions it yielded 30 brownies, whereas by the more recent edition it was only 15. In other words, the brownie portion had doubled over the course of two decades.

While the theories touted by Popular Science are interesting--and expensive to pursue--we haven't seen a single bit of data that suggests that a person eating a right-sized diet in terms of calories has nonetheless grown obese due to artificial sweeteners, lack of sleep, viruses or BPA. It's possible that there is some connection between those factors and an unquenchable desire to eat more food, but other than some very rare metabolic disorders, no one is getting fat without also eating too much.

We're not sure how best to fight the issue. The entire food industry is at fault, for a fairly simple reason: they want to sell more food, and for years they've been involved in a literally unhealthy portion war, with ever-expanding portion sizes devoted to obtaining the loyalty of the most gluttonous in our society.

Should the government regulate portion sizes? Perhaps. We're not saying the government should prohibit anyone from eating larger portions--or more regular portions--than needed to keep them at an ideal weight.

But, perhaps it would be useful for the government to require labels on foods that exceed portion controls. For example, that bucket of oil-laden popcorn you get at the movie theater or a sporting event could have a prominent label saying: WARNING--this food product is X times the portion appropriate to one average sized person.

Better yet, while the movie theater could be allowed to offer the larger size, it should (1) be prohibited from labelling it as "value" product, and (2) be required to offer, at proportionate cost, a portion that is appropriate.

Yes, yes, we can see all kinds of problems with such a system. But people do need help. Most of us have forgotten what an appropriate portion is. We've said this before, but when we were children, a complete meal at McDonald's FOR OUR PARENTS would have been a regular cheeseburger, small fries (not today's "small") and a 10-oz. drink (not a "diet soda" either). That would still suffice today if it weren't for a culture that now considers that nothing more than a snack.

[Aside: a good portion of toll house cookies would be 1. We won't say how many the Curmudgeon had.]

Exotic theories of obesity are interesting, but a great deal of common sense would go much further in stopping the "epidemic".

1 comment:

MonkeyGirl said...

In science, usually the simplest theory is the most correct one. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but in this case I think that it holds true. People are getting obese because they are eating more and exercising less.

These other theories posed in Popular Science sound a bit like excuses - blaming something else for causing this epidemic. I realize there's a whole other debate on who is to blame for bigger portion sizes, but the onus is on us, as individuals, to eat less and be more active.