America's massive food portions

21:36, Apr 23 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.

It'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.

My 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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