Preposterous Portions - Retirement Net by Jan Cullinane

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Preposterous Portions

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One cause of the current epidemic of obesity is the size of our meals

Posted September 29, 2009

We've heard the scary statistics about the expanding waistlines of the American public—a 2009 CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) study reports that a third of adults and 16% of children are obese. Proposed culprits include TV, the Internet, inactivity, viruses, lack of sleep, easy availability of fast food, heavy friends, genetics, side effects of medicine, hormonal issues, air conditioning (it's too comfortable inside to go outside), safety concerns that keep people within their homes, companies that manipulate fat, salt, and sugar in foods that make us crave high-calorie food, and portion size.

A little research on this last one, portion size, shows how dramatically servings have grown over the years. When combined with the psychology that people tend to eat more if it's there, and companies' increased profit margins when they charge a nominal fee (about 16%) for a larger serving size (additional advertising, design, and labor costs are negligible), it's no wonder that we're getting bigger and bigger. And, look at the sizes of the plates and glasses that are routinely now sold. My 35-year old Waterford Lismore wineglasses look positively tiny next to my recently purchased wineglasses, and my 35-year old Noritake "Blue Hill" plates are almost the same size as my new salad plates! Makes it look like a lot more space that "needs" to be filled up with food.

Here are some comparisons of serving sizes then (in the 1950s) and now:

  Then Now
French fries 2.5 ounces 7 ounces
Hershey Bar 2 ounces 7 ounces
Movie popcorn 5 cups 11 cups
Soda 7 ounces Up to 64 ounces
Muffin 3 ounces 6.5 ounces
Serving of pasta 1.5 cups 3 cups
Hamburger patty 1.6 ounces Up to 8 ounces
Bagel 3 inch diameter 6 inch diameter
Cheesecake 3 ounces 7 ounces
Cookie 1.5 inch diameter 3.5 inch diameter

This increase in portion size (and calories) is an insidious change that we have grown accustomed to in everyday life. Being aware of this change is a first step toward addressing one of the many causes of obesity. Bon appétit!

Jan Cullinane is the co-author (along with Cathy Fitzgerald) of the best-selling book, The New Retirement: The Ultimate Guide to the Rest of Your Life (Rodale). She has appeared on TV both nationally and locally, has conducted more than 60 radio, Internet, and television interviews, and has written or been interviewed for numerous newspaper and magazine articles. Jan has a B.S. and M.Ed. from the University of Maryland. Her website is


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