America's massive food portions

Last updated 09:36 24/04/2012

When I am home in New Zealand I have a running joke to myself that after living in America every thing I order - every drink, every meal - seems minuscule.

It's deflating at first. You are at a restaurant and you're excited for your food to arrive. But then the waiter puts it down in front of you and something doesn't seem right. Wait, you think, that's it? Aren't plates of nachos supposed to be larger than my head? Aren't burger patties supposed to be the size of a discus? Why didn't the waitress refill your glass of Diet Coke five times during your meal? Why were you served your coffee in a thimble?

Invariably, you finish your meal and realise that you've been served a perfectly generous and respectful amount of food. But you're different now. Your lens has been forever distorted.

FOOD1It's a hard thing to quantify in statistics but you know it instinctively just by eating over here. Every plate of nachos, every burger, every meal of Mexican food, every salad, every bowl of fries, every slice of pizza is easily bigger in America. The most common feeling I have when leaving a restaurant here is queasy.

Just this Friday past, LP and I walked up to a Belgian pub we'd always meant to go to. I ordered a chicken sandwich, which was itself sizable. It came drowned in fries. My meal ended but the fries were there, and I picked and I picked and I picked. Before long, I was... uncomfortable.

A 2006 survey estimated that the average restaurant patron consumed 60 per cent more calories in a meal out than they would at home. Nearly two-thirds of executive chefs admitted to serving a steak that was 12 ounces or larger. The recommended serving of red meat per meal is three ounces. The American National Heart Lung and Blood Institute said that most restaurant portions have at least doubled in calories in the past 20 years.

It is a way of sizing that bleeds into all areas of American consumption. I was at Dunkin' Donuts in the weekend and made the mistake of ordering a large iced coffee. The drink was too much liquid for any man, and the cup itself was so large that it actually annoyed me to carry it around. Starbucks have inserted another size, the "Trenta", which is much larger than the already considerable "Venti". It can contain 916ml of coffee, which incidentally is larger than the average human stomach capacity. The extra-large popcorn at the movies here is so large you could eat all the popcorn and then use the cardboard as a way of transporting a medium-sized pet or even a small child.

FOOD2My one piece of American culinary advice: order the medium. If you learn how to stick with this advice, write to me and let me know how. Sometimes I enjoy ordering freakishly large things over here - it turns consumption into tourism and makes me feel as though I'm at a carnival. I also like a challenge. But seriously, don't do it. It's not good. 

The odd thing is, if we stand back and have a statistical look at the waistlines of New Zealanders and Americans, people are unhealthier here, but not actually by that much.  

According to 2010 survey results, one in seven low-income, preschool-aged American children is obese. Seventeen per cent of kids aged between two and 19 are obese. Childhood obesity has tripled in prevalence in the past 30 years.

Of adults, 35.7 per cent are obese. Mississippi is America's fattest state, Colorado the thinnest. Obesity strikes the South, Blacks and Hispanics at a higher rate than the rest of the USA.

It's expensive too: obesity costs the US $147 billion annually, and someone who is obese will pay an average of $1429 more in medical expenses each year.

I couldn't find an exactly matching data set for New Zealand, but a 2008-2009 nutritional survey was published by the Ministry of Health in September last year. It reported that 27.8 per cent of New Zealanders are obese. Maori and Pacific Island communities both reported higher obesity rates.

Personally, I loathe the use of the word "obese" - it feels aggressive, and a little like a judgment - but it's in the literature, a classification of someone with a higher Body Mass Index score than 30.  

One is bad, the other is not a lot better. The United States ranks first easily among industrialised communities for obesity. Different surveys put New Zealand in various spots in the top 10, some as high as number two. 

I expected the US to score a lot worse than New Zealand for obesity, because of the aforementioned reckless food servings and for a host of other little things: people drive a lot more here, there's a much higher density of fast food restaurants. But I'm not sure what our excuse as a country is in New Zealand. I guess, though, obesity is a complicated issue. It's a little bit economic, it's a little bit social, it's a little bit emotional and it's a little bit about education.

Have you felt the unique discomfort that can come from eating out in America? What do you ascribe the respective obesity rates to?

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JCC   #1   10:03 am Apr 24 2012

Just thinking out loud here, but perhaps just giving the % of obese people doesn't really tell us much. Maybe lots of people in NZ have a BMI of 31 or 32, whereas in the US, perhaps a larger number are say at a BMI of 40. They are all 'obese' but due to the larger portions, less walking, more fast food places etc, the US population is 'heavier'?

My husband and i are visiting the US in september, and we're not huge eaters, so maybe we can save some $$ by only ordering 1 meal and sharing!

Graeme Edgeler   #2   10:05 am Apr 24 2012

@James: "Personally, I loathe the use of the word "obese""

I loathe the phrase "overweight or obese".

Obese is (or should be) a subset of overweight, sort of a really overweight (with morbidly obese basically meaning really really overweight).

When the media or experts put them together in phrases like "1 in 3 Americans are overweight or obese" it seems like scaremongering, like they want us to think one-third of people are obese, when it's possible very few are. "1 in 3 New Zealanders are overweight, and half of them are obese" not only avoids misleading people, it actually carries much more information.

Dr Portion   #3   10:11 am Apr 24 2012

On my first visit to the US, my girlfriend and I checked in to the Boston hotel after a long flight and decided to have a small, room service order. Nachos to share as a starter and a burger each. When the poor waiter arrived, he could barely carry the tray. We were stuffed after sharing the "starter" and couldn't manage the burgers (which came with a mountain of fries).

In another Vermont restaurant, we ordered ice-cream for dessert. A whole tub of Ben and Jerry's *each* turned up. Every meal out included a doggy-bag to take home the bits we couldn't eat.

The Americans just equate size with quality.

By the way - check out the Ben & Jerry's Vermonster - 20 scoops of ice-cream, 4 bananas, 4 ladles of hot fudge, 3 choc chip cookies, 1 choc fudge brownie, 10 scoops walnuts, 2 scoops each of 4 other toppings, plus whipped cream - 14,000 calories/500g fat.

Rachel   #4   10:20 am Apr 24 2012

On a recent trip to Arizona, I made the HUGE mistake of ordering a large soda from McDonalds (it was a $1) and when they handed to to me, it felt like I was about to drink a keg. You mentioned about having your Diet Coke filled up 5 times during a meal, I wish that would happen here with water or any sort of drink, seriously how expensive is the syrup that restaurants use to mix with water to make soda, very sad state of affairs to have to pay $4.50 for a non-alcoholic drink. I had an ice tea from Starbucks in Trenta, luckily there is a large proportion of ice so isn't that much to drink but very difficult to carry around. I have eaten at the Cheesecake Factory and had a small starter so I can have cheesecake at the end and have watched in astonishment when people have a full meal AND a piece of cheesecake, I just don't think they know any different and it's the way they eat. Even with the huge meals, I managed to lose weight will there for 4 weeks but then I don't usually spend all my days walking the malls and attractions in 100 degree heat, so I guess that was inevitable.

kelly   #5   10:28 am Apr 24 2012

I'm wondering if I will need to book two seats on the plane back to Aoteroa after November! I have a huge appetite and will take your adivce on the "medium" servings!

Greg   #6   10:54 am Apr 24 2012

The thing that struck me on my second trip to the USA (in May 2005) was the number of mobility scooters. Not occupied by the elderly and infirm - but by giant individuals. Now I was particulary sensitive to this - having had a weight loss "stomach stapling" only 6 months before. Trying to get appropriately sized meals for my then highly restricted stomach was impossible. I became very adept at hiding my leftover portions under napkins to avoid the staff asking "is something wrong with the food?". I did have my first "post op" steak in a small town steak house over there. Convincing the staff that I just wanted the main - no soup or salid first was a mission. Just the smallest steak with a small handful of veges please. The petite steak they served seemed enormous - mashed spuds dripping in buttery sauce - carrots drowned in sweet orange glaze - everything is either fatty or sweet. But the matchbox sized piece of steak I was able to consume was delicious. I paid for it dearly an hour later - but it was worth it. After 5 weeks in the USA - to my amazement I still managed to loose 4kg during that time. I don't know how.

viffer   #7   10:54 am Apr 24 2012

We ate at very very few fast food places in the US, so I don't particularly remember the size of portions being a problem, except at one restaurant in Monterey where asked for doggie bags and ate the leftovers for dinner the following evening - so it was effectively twice the normal meal size for us.

The problem we *did* have though, was that nothing was a simple, small meal. On one trip my wife got food poisoning (possibly an allergic reaction to seafood), so the next day when we ate our last meal before leaving LA, she said, "I would just like something simple, like a ham sandwich". Yeah, right...

We went across the road to a "hole in the wall" kinda sandwichery, and it was: "What kind of bread/dressing/mustard/cheese etc etc?" and "Do you want soup/fries/a drink/pickles/etc....; What kind of soup? What cut of fries? What size drink? Diet or regular? etc etc." One of us had *everything*, another had just the sandwich and fries, and my wife had a sandwich with plain white bread, ham, and nothing else. (This involved a lot of saying "No" to what seemed like 20 questions).

It seems that the average Mrkn meal is a large picnic, and that it is de rigeur when ordering to know in advance and to specify what all the components should be, forming a very large and complex menu. It was just TOO MUCH and too complicated for us, and we probably annoyed the hell out of all the waiters and servers we dealt with. We had no idea beforehand that *anything* we ordered was not what it appeared, but was to open a veritable culinary Pandora's Box of epic proportions.

ChicagoanInWelly   #8   10:55 am Apr 24 2012

I gained weight after moving from the US to NZ, primarily due to succumbing to the drinking culture and also because it's difficult to order healthy food here. Healthy options on menus are practically non-existant, and special ordering (no oil/butter, salad instead of fries, egg whites instead of whole eggs) was discouraged, refused, or misinterpreted -- although things do seem to be improving.

That being said, I don't miss the ridiculous portion sizes in the US, although I do miss paying reasonable amounts of money for said food/coffee. :-/

Rachel #4 - I agree about the soda refills - how many fractions of a cent does it cost to refill a Diet Coke??

HZ   #9   11:02 am Apr 24 2012

Tiny portion sizes suck. Comes hand in hand with us Kiwis being ripped off for food - Among other things.

Ollie   #10   11:05 am Apr 24 2012

First time I went to a McDonald's in NZ after returning home from the States, I ordered a large Big Mac combo. They put the drink and fries on the tray, and I started to say "Oh, that was supposed to be a lar....", and realised that of course it was.

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