Portion Control: What's Good for You?

Aug 29, 2014 | Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown
Portion Control: What's Good for You?

image by: Engin Akyurt

It's simple: you've got to eat. What's not so simple for some of us is knowing when to say when. But because "when" is not the same for all of us, how should we approach the question of portion control, especially in a society that sometimes sends messages that under-eating is a virtue?

I've been seeing this billboard around town lately.  "Soft Drink," it says.  "Any Size.  $1." 

The intended message is something like "Wow, what a deal!" or "How generous!" But what I take away is disgust at yet one more example of pandering to American gluttony with cheap, unhealthy products and a message that somehow more is necessarily better.

Freedom of choice is lovely. But when your nation is the most obese on the planet, perhaps your populous might be better served by a nod toward normalizing modest portions over the supersizing status quo.

There are at least two major obstacles obstructing the path to the proportional utopia of which I dream. The first is obvious: In a free market, you can't tell people and companies what to do.

Okay, it's not as obvious as all that. There exists a long list of restrictions on the free market.  For example, you are not allowed to sell soda laced with arsenic. The majority of food products may not be marketed without listing their ingredients and nutritional information. There are entire bureaucracies charged with overseeing food preparation and handling. There are anti-trust regulations, civil codes, state and federal laws, on and on. Certain products simply may not be sold in some states (e.g., cannabis) or anywhere in the country (e.g., bushmeat).

The rationales behind the restrictions are sometimes convoluted and even contradictory. The government prohibits certain substances due to their harmful effects, while allowing plenty of other harmful substances to be not only consumed but marketed freely and ubiquitously.

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is the prime example. Universally regarded by the medical community as unhealthy and apparently linked to increases in obesity and type-2 diabetes, not only is HFCS tolerated, but the federal government foments its manufacture and low price point by subsidizing corn production to the tune of $88.4 billion between 1995 and 2012. That makes corn by far the most government-supported food product in the United States, despite the fact that corn is not especially nutritive even in natural form, let alone when converted to HFCS.

Because sugar is both a mood-enhancer and a taste to which humans are evolutionary predisposed, sweetening foods is an easy way to get people coming back for more. Thus have U.S. food manufacturers added HFCS to an increasing number of food products not generally regarded as sweet, such as crackers.

Moreover, because the consumption of fructose fails to suppress the brain's appetite centers to the degree that other sweeteners (such as sucrose) do, people tend to ingest that much more of the stuff.

All told, it's a perfect storm for excessive consumption. And so HFCS has become the ultimate economy of scale for food manufacturers, who mass produce as much HFCS as they can shove down people's throats.

But as I said, in a free market, Obstacle #1 to a portion-proportionate utopia is ever-present.

Obstacle #2 is a subtler challenge. While portion control certainly has something to do with health consciousness, for many the issue bleeds over into appearance consciousness, a far more subjective and less essential element of life. Not all healthy bodies look alike, and not all healthy eaters consume or should consume the same portions. And so when this or that organization pushes not simply for portion control in the abstract but for a predetermined idea of what qualifies as a healthy portion, many recoil from what they perceive as a "one size fits all" mentality that discriminates against bigger bodies and bigger eaters.

As a fairly healthy eater of average size who doesn't have an especially complicated relationship with food, I had never given this much thought. Then I came across a friend's Facebook post in relation to a graphic entitled "Portion Distortion," which makes the point that an average cheeseburger meal served in a restaurant contains about 1,350 calories and over 50 grams of fat—a "portion distortion," considering that (according to the graphic) a single serving is more along the lines of 700 calories and 30 grams of fat.

"While this [graphic] may be beneficial to some people, I don't believe everyone has to follow this," wrote my friend. "If you want to eat the whole thing, then eat the whole damn thing! Yes, I know this was […] to support weight loss, but I'm well aware that it will affect even those who are already conscious with eating and their weight. It's not only the 'portions' that are disordered, but also the way society views health. We should be able to be intuitively aware of when we are full and if that means more than what the 'normal' size of a portion is then so be it! Enjoy the food and don't let some silly photo or others' judgement alter your view on how much to eat or what to eat."

While there's a fair point here, the unfortunately reality is that some of us lack the knowledge or even capacity to confine ourselves to eating healthy (i.e., healthy for the particular individual) portions. Be it for reasons of nature or nurture—or, as is often the case, a combination of the two—many people will eat pretty much whatever is put in front of them, so long as it tastes good or at least is a food product to which they have become habituated to consume.

While there may be no formula for determining portion size that can be rightly applied to everyone, for every body there is a threshold beyond which further consumption is counterproductive to health. "If you want to eat the whole damn thing, then eat the whole damn thing" is very bad advice for some people, because there is no necessary correlation between what we want and what it is healthy to have.

Despite the very real phenomenon of curbing one's food consumption with an eye toward appearance—which can, of course, be quite unhealthy in its own right— considering the obesity rate in the United States, apparently it's the "eat the whole damn thing" message that is heeded more frequently.

The external world and the human psyche have proven ingenious at creating unhealthy desires. So perhaps we might all be better off if our choices—individually and collectively, privately and in the business world—were guided by mindfulness that not all of us knows what's good for us.

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:  greggorymoore.com

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