It’s an oddity of modern life that we consume an immense amount of calories — much of them from empty or sugary carbs — while using our bodies about 90% less than in previous eras due to a sedentary lifestyle. So, more calories in + fewer calories out = fat storage. Is it any wonder that we have a crisis of obesity in the Western world, and in the US in particular?
But unless you plan to start pulling a plow from sunup till supper, probably the best way to lose weight and get healthy is to eat less. More than that, we should also have an interest in the health of our world and how its health affects not only our own health now, but the health of everyone going forward. And portion sizes play a big role in that.
First, there’s so much food waste in the US that it can accurately be called tragic. As a religious person, I also call it sinful.
That could be compost!
On the waste side, it’s terrible that food is tossed into dumpsters or rendered inedible while so many of our fellow Americans, especially kids, are going hungry.
But the production side is a tragedy too — if we overuse the water and soil required to grow massive amounts of food quickly and cheaply, we strain our natural resources to a breaking point. That means we create more pollution, which is as bad for the climate as it is for the rivers and lakes of our local communities.
It also means we use up valuable fossil fuels more quickly. That will make not only our food, but also our daily commutes, heating our homes and just about anything you buy more expensive in the future.
So can the size of what you put on your plate make a difference?
I think so.
Portion sizes at even shi shi places are usually big enough these days to bring some home for a second meal. That’s fine, since we know we’ll eat those leftovers.
But with budget strains I wish that more restaurants would take up the “half-portion” concept or the “continental plate,” a more realistic portion common in the US before supersizing began in the 1970s. You can still get these smaller portions throughout Europe. And with food costs expected to rise in 2012, maybe we’ll even see it stateside.
Some restaurants do offer half-portions, but the trend hasn’t caught on very widely just yet. Asking for a half portion often just miffs the waiter and the chef. And who can blame them? Restaurants calibrate servings to work their profit margins and those margins are often quite tight when you factor in all business costs.
Some places even charge a “sharing fee.” But this just ends up being an outrageous affront to the customer who doesn’t really understand the inner workings of the restaurant biz. In the end, it’s a customer service nightmare.
But since most restaurants don’t charge a “sharing fee,” couples, families and even business associates who are more like family members can experiment with sharing meals in order to bring dining costs down while still supporting local eateries.
The other thing you can do is ask the restaurant to add a menu section for smaller portions that are reflected in lower costs. Fill out those feedback cards! Smart places will take it up, since smaller portions are on everyone’s lips these days.
If your local favorite won’t consider offering smaller plates, then you may want to consider finding a new local favorite. Or, bring that eco-friendly to-go container and before you dig in for that first bite, set aside half for take-home. This will reduce the temptation to eat too much, and will ensure that your dollars get stretched to two meals (while making some upcoming meal just a little easier at home).
Speaking of at home…
So how can you reduce your portion sizes at home?
First, if you’re into conservation, frugality, and a small carbon footprint you can point to that as your motivation, rather than being solely focused on weight loss or the challenge to “eat healthy” in an unhealthy culture. This one small shift in thinking has done wonders for many people pursuing a more holisitic life. It’s almost as if taking the emphasis off of “me” and on to “we” somehow makes the socially-minded individual more jazzed to cut down. Adding in some altruism can supercharge your diet commitment!
At any rate, at home the trick is to serve a satisfying array of food that answers the tongue’s desire for satisfaction by hitting all the notes of savory, salty, bitter, sour, astringent and sweet. That alone can bring a sense of satisfaction that leaves eaters content. Plan meals to include all these tastes and your eaters will be happier and less driven to eat to excess.
Another trick: just as you would pack out half your meal at a restaurant before eating your serving (instead of waiting until you’re half-done) you can set aside half your meal before putting it on the table in order to plan for leftovers without creating the visual temptation of more as the family is sitting around the dinner table.
Or you can just cook less. But I like cooking once, eating twice. #LaborSaving.
What about the men?
Oh men, dear men!
My hubby is an eating-machine. He’s quite trim and in shape due to yoga, walking, biking and swimming, but he’s a challenge when it comes to keeping our grocery bill down (thank heavens for the garden and “putting up the harvest”). The man can eat!
The upshot of guys is their utter indiscriminate nature when it comes to slopping down the kids’ unfinished plates. So before thinking of running back to the kitchen for more, wait long enough to see if Dad will vacuum up the kiddos’ table scraps. Then you might still get away with cutting everyone’s portions while still satisfying the biggest eaters among you.
Teen-aged boys might not yet have reached a willingness to eat other’s unfinished bits. If so, evaluate on a case-by-case basis. The key may simply be giving the big boys a larger portion of the protein to start so they’ll feel fuller sooner. (What they do in the dead of night I can’t say.)
You, me and everyone else
Seven billion and counting — that’s how many neighbors we share our planet with today. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. Trying to feed the world through industrial agriculture has a huge impact on the natural resources we depend on to survive and be healthy. Stepping away from that paradigm and building something better requires so much consciousness and behavior change on our parts.
One of the things dearest to anyone is food — its comforts, its pleasures, its satisfactions. But we’ve grown distorted, still eating the brawny amount of calories needed for manual labor two centuries ago while expending a uniquely puny amount of energy today sitting at desks, in front of screens and in bucket seats on freeways. Maybe someday in a lower-tech future, we’ll all be living in A Nation of Farmers again, as Thomas Jefferson imagined to be the proper fate for a virtuous republic. In the meantime, as a nation of office workers and homemakers, we should eat more like birds and less like pigs.
To do the best for your health, and for our world, cut your portion sizes. Ask yourself, Am I hungry? Eating less goes hand-in-hand with a conservation lifestyle.*
–Lindsay Curren, Lindsay’s List
*As always, if you or anyone you are responsible for has a health issue you should consult your doctor before making any lifestyle changes.