We all know the sermon: We are fat and getting fatter because we eat too much. These days the people giving us too much food are (pick one):
a) Your mother
b) Your spouse
c) The chef at your favorite restaurant
The answer is probably c), the chef. Your mother or your spouse may also try to overfeed you but since we eat so few meals at home, we are more likely to get too much food to eat from the restaurants we go to for our breakfasts, lunches and dinners.
Sometimes the overfeeding of the customer is obvious. Any entrée that is bigger than your head is obviously going to contain too many calories -- unless you are tackling a head of cauliflower for dinner. Portion inflation is also obvious in the bagel and muffin trade. What used to be standard muffin or bagel size is now regarded as mini as in a mini-muffin. And when your breakfast of pancakes, fried eggs, bacon, sausage, hash brown potatoes and buttered toast fills a platter that could hold a Thanksgiving turkey, you know that you may be eating enough food for a family of four.
But the problem is that we have become accustomed to restaurant portions and don't think of them as too big. It is easy to spot a meal that may cause weight gain, especially when the food on the plate is stacked so high, you can't see the head of the eater. But when everyone is the restaurant is served a pound of meat or fish and two cups of mashed potatoes or rice, we assume that this is a normal portion. Think about a steak restaurant. If the steak portions on the menu range from 8 ounces to 20, we regard the 8 ounces steak as a tidbit rather than twice as much meat as we should be eating at a meal.
Even the appetizers have fallen victim to portion inflation. As someone who prefers eating an appetizer and a salad rather than an entrée, I have been shocked at how much food is served for a course that typically is followed by the main meal and maybe even dessert. When some humongous portion of an appetizer was put before me recently, I asked the waiter if most people could eat another course after this one. "Sure," he said. "This is just the first course." It is only when we eat in another country that we realize how much less food is served.
Who is responsible for overfeeding us in a restaurant? It turns out that the decision to plate large amounts of food is usually made by the executive chef. This is the person who is responsible for developing menus, overseeing meal preparation and service and also the economics of the kitchen. How much food is served is not a matter of wanting to comfort the customer with a big portion but rather how much profit can be made when balancing the portion size against the cost of food, overhead, labor and the perception of the customers that they are getting "what they paid for."
Barbara Rolls and her colleagues asked chefs attending culinary meetings in the U.S. what was involved in deciding how much food to serve. More than 80 percent of them served 8 ounces of the main course-protein component and were unaware that this was at least 4 ounces more protein than the recommended government dietary guidelines. The same discrepancy held for servings of side dishes such as pasta. Plate size figured into their calculations as well; about a third of the chefs used plates that were more than a foot across. In their report, published in Obesity in 2007, the authors reported that the age of the chef influenced portion size. Those over 51 served significantly smaller portions and tended to use smaller plates than the younger chefs. There was no explanation for this discrepancy. Perhaps the older ones were working in more expensive restaurants where portion sizes tend to be smaller. Maybe they were beginning to suffer from obesity-related problems and were sensitive to how much food their customers were eating. Or perhaps they remembered what normal portions sizes looked like.
Don't expect the chef to be concerned about your weight-loss program. Only 41 percent of them thought that excess calorie intake was related to obesity. Some pointed to saturated fat as the cause of weight gain but disregarded the fact that unsaturated fat such as olive oil has the same number of calories per gram. A few even mentioned drinking too much water and eating too much fiber as the culprits!
Since the chefs make the executive decision about portion sizes, would or could they also serve smaller portions? They were asked if they could reduce portion size without losing customers and most agreed a modest reduction of about 10-15 percent would not be noticed. However, cutting 25 percent of the portion and serving 6 rather than 8 ounces of protein would, they believe, lose them customers. Some of them stated that if the customer was served more food than he or she should eat, it was up to the customer to eat less. If the customer felt that a meal paid for had to be a meal completely eaten regardless of its size, well then, that was the customer's decision. Don't blame the chef if you eat too much.
I doubt if we are going to see restaurants promote themselves by advertising either "tiny portions" or "you will want to ask for more." So we the restaurant diner has to depend on well-known strategies to keep our food intake within appropriate boundaries such as:
1. Eat half the entrée and take the rest home.
2. Share an entrée .
3. Order an appetizer and salad -- not the main course.
4. Avoid restaurants known for large portions.
5. Eat at restaurants that promote small tapas so you can order as much or as little as you feel like eating.
6. Make a late lunch, rather than dinner, your eating out event of the weekend. The portion is always smaller (and less expensive).
7. Don't be afraid to leave food on your plate even if the waitperson looks offended.
8. When you do eat at a restaurant whose portions are appropriate for only one person rather than a party of four, compliment the chef.
9. Stop feeling as if you have to eat your money's worth of food. As a friend once told me, "What is the point of eating more than I should just because I paid for the dish? If I do, then I am going to gain weight and then I will have to pay someone to help me lose it. "
10. Even though restaurant portions are one size fits all, diners are not. Do you really want to eat the same amount of food as someone who weighs twice as much as you do?
Maybe someday, all menus will list portion sizes. Some restaurants are already doing this. In the meantime, it will be up to you, not the person with the tall white hat, to determine how much you should eat.
Follow Judith J. Wurtman, PhD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/stopmed_wt_gain