Why Are We Eating Portions Larger Than Our Heads?

The short-term gratification is not worth the impact on health.

Posted Nov 10, 2016

In 1976, an extremely talented cartoonist named Kliban published a book titled, Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head.  In the cartoon with this caption, Kliban drew a man with a tiny head holding a fork stuck into a head-size ball of food. Today, both the humor and the caption seem outdated. Portion sizes can be so large that it is easy to eat something larger than our heads, even when our heads are a normal size.

This was obvious when at a neighborhood restaurant I passed someone eating what looked like a small fried animal. “Don’t stare,” hissed my companion, but I slowed down to see what really was on her plate. The fried animal was a piece of heavily battered fried chicken the size of a turkey breast, propped up, as on a pedestal, by two thick waffles. “Well,” I thought, "Kliban would have been dismayed that his joke was no longer a joke. It was reality.”

Portion sizes have been expanding for the past 30 years or so, long enough so that many people don’t remember when a bagel or a muffin was small enough to be picked up with one hand or 20-ounce steaks fed a family of four rather than a solo diner. In fact, when a younger member of my extended family noticed a package of mid-20th century bagels in a frozen food case, she thought they were teething biscuits. It was hard for her to believe that bagels were normally this portion size.

The food models that dieticians use to show dieters healthy portion sizes are examples of the disparity between what we should be eating and what we do eat. The dietician’s ideal of a 3-ounce protein serving evokes disbelief when dieters are shown a brown rectangle about as big as an iPhone 6s. The mound of rice or pasta in a ½ cup serving of rice or pasta the size of a Ping-Pong ball, and the scrawny piece of whole wheat bread too small to support the smear of allowable butter, evokes laughter. Then there are the comments:

“That is a half a cup of pasta?"

“That little mound of plastic berries is a cup?”

“You don’t really mean that all I can eat is that tiny palm-size piece of hamburger.”

”Does anyone eat such small portions anymore?”

Is it any surprise that dieters consume too many calories? A dieter would have to measure and weigh constantly to make sure to eat the correct amounts. And who does this, at least for longer than the first few days of a diet?

Sufficient to say, our acceptance of gargantuan portions is also a potent force for weight gain. It is so easy to dismiss the 500 calories in a muffin by saying to ourselves, ‘It is just a muffin. How fattening can it be?’ But when our dining companions have managed to consume the gigantic bowl of pasta, or a whole pizza, or a sky-high piece of chocolate cake, maybe this means that the portions really aren’t too big, and we shouldn't feel guilty about eating the same amount. If the drink comes in a glass as big as a birdbath, should we really be concerned about its calorie content? No one else is.

One reason for the food portions looking as if they are on steroids is the rising overhead in restaurants. As the cost of serving food increases due to rents, labor, equipment, taxes, insurance, etc., the relative cost of food itself decreases. If a sandwich costs $9.00, the actual cost of the food may be $2.00, and the rest overhead. So, to justify the high price, it is stuffed with turkey or tuna salad. There is a homemade ice cream store near me in a high-rent area. The cost of the ice cream seems to increase every year, but so does the size of the serving. A so-called kiddie cone that used to be about ¼ of a cup is now almost double the size. And a regular-sized cone is so large that it threatens to topple over. Even if a customer wants a small cone, it is almost impossible to get it now. And few have the willpower to throw away a half-eaten scoop of ice cream, even if the serving size was larger than anticipated.

Ironically, one result of larger portion sizes and the obesity that follows is the popularity of a surgical procedure to reduce the size of the stomach. It is physically impossible to eat even mid-20th century size portions after such operations. Eventually the size of the stomach increases slightly, but it can never hold the tremendous amounts of foods it once did. Perhaps some savvy food manufacturer will see a niche market among post-bariatric surgery patients and begin to package food in miniature size portions.

But it is not necessary to undergo surgery to resist ‘cleaning the plate’ of a too-large amount of food. The now well-established request for doggy bags for uneaten portions of the meal, or acceptability of splitting an entrée with another diner, or ordering an appetizer rather than a main course, limits the amount of food consumed. Eating several small meals through the day, really just snacks like a fruit, or a yogurt, half a sandwich, or small salad, is another way to return to reasonable portion sizes.

Ultimately, our stomachs and brains should be controlling how much we eat. A small stomach feels uncomfortable with too much food. A brain primed to shut off eating when hunger is gone will make us stop, regardless of how much food is left on the plate. Listening to both of these signals guarantees that we will not be eating anything larger than our heads.