As the groaning board of Thanksgiving beckons, plates will be filled with turkey and dressing (aka, stuffing), loads of sweet potatoes, jellied cranberries, green-bean casserole and slices of pumpkin pie. And that's just the first helping. Many will revisit the food line to try some of Aunt Sue's mashed potatoes or Cousin Daniel's deep-fried turkey. After all, binging is the other national sport on Thanksgiving.
But do Americans respond differently to food on the other 364 days of the year? Or has overeating become a national pastime? We collectively laugh at the serving-size portion suggested on the side of some packages. Come on, five chips and two teaspoons of salsa are not what happens after the bag is opened. Who only eats a half-cup of cereal? Ramen-noodle soup is two servings? And how many share a pint of Ben & Jerry's with three friends? The fact is, although we find humor in the absurdity of five chips being a full serving, the joke is really on us. While package labeling has become a game of smoke and mirrors, you might be shocked at how much you actually consume.
America is geared towards largeness and the problem is, um, growing. A University of North Carolina study released in 2003 showed that since the late 1970s, portion sizes of key foods increased not only at fast-food joints but also in full-service restaurants and at home. The American marketplace encourages gluttony. After all, profits follow larger portions -- the more you eat, the more foodsellers sell.
Bagels are so gargantuan today that it looks as if they've been radioactively enlarged in some 50s sci-fi flick. Before the 80s, bagels were the size of hockey pucks; now they are almost twice that size, with twice the calories.
Among the worst culprits in serving inordinately large portions are fast-food drive-thrus. Whose "value" is it anyway? Sure, they want you to "SuperSize" it. That's where their profit is. Have you tried ordering small fries lately? I don't think it's even on the menu anymore. Medium is the new small.
In addition to the fast-food joints are those "all-you-can-eat" places that cash in on our gluttony and belief that more equals better value. "All-you-can-eat" buffets are as popular as ever and a favorite among Chinese, Vietnamese and Indian restaurant owners. For $7-$8 you can stuff yourself silly with egg rolls or samosas. At Tex-Mex and many Latino restaurants, entrees spill off the plate. Carolina football players may require 8,000 calories a day, but the average office worker needs fewer than 2,500.
Forget all the diets -- Atkins, South Beach, the Zone -- they're all cyclical anyway. When it comes down to it, eating is a fairly simple science. Food comes into the body and is expended as energy. Food left over from that process turns to fat. We have 10,000 years of adaptation working against the all-you-can-eaters. What a body needs will be immediately broken down to use -- the rest just hangs around. So by gigantisizing your meal, you are supersizing your waistline.
Food and dining should be a matter of taste, not quantity. When Mireille Guiliano came out with her French Women Don't Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure last winter, readers were surprised by how simple the "secret" of French women is. The French eat for the taste and watch the zipper, not the scales. Guiliano terms this being comfortable in one's skin: bien dans sa peau. French women do not deny themselves food. They just don't eat so much of it. "Tout est question d'équilibre (Everything is a matter of balance)." The rules are simple: smaller portions, lots of vegetables and fruits, slower eating, three meals a day (sitting down at a table), no snacking or second helpings, no skipping meals, drinking eight-to-ten glasses of room-temperature water a day, walking everywhere and taking stairs instead of elevators.
How much turkey should you eat on Thanksgiving to be consuming a healthy portion size? About three ounces, the size of a deck of cards. A normal portion of pasta should be the size of a tennis ball. One helping of cheese should be about one ounce -- the size of four dice. A baked potato should be the size of a computer mouse, not a small mammal.
Most folks commit the sin of gluttony, one of seven venial sins, simply by eating large portions. But the end result is far from appealing. The punishment on earth is an expanding waistline and major medical complications. The punishment in hell is being force-fed rats, toads and snakes. Happy holidays!
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