Why Portion Sizes Are Out of Control

We’re all painfully aware, I think, of the obesity problem in America. Most of us live with it daily. When it seems like everyone is so health conscious, why are so many of us struggling with this issue?


We live in a culture that is simply awash with food. It comes so easily to us, we don’t think how hard it used to be for our ancestors 100 years ago, let alone a thousand years ago.

I drive to the store, load up a cart with a week’s worth of food (if not more), and drive home again. Seventy years ago, my grandmother walked to the grocery store every day, bought enough food for that day, and walked home again.

food abundance

Photo by ilker • FreeImages

Think about how much more work one had to do in the days when the only food you had was what you dug out of the ground or hunted down yourself. Our forebears worked hard for every calorie they took in. We sit in cushy chairs all day pressing buttons, and then we eat twice as much food as they did—if not more.

One big share of the blame for our overabundant eating goes to restaurants, who have completely distorted our idea of what constitutes a “portion” of food. My doctor once told me a single serving of meat should be the size of a deck of cards. So a hamburger patty—reasonable. A 16-ounce steak cooked in butter? Not so much.

I used to have a brilliant co-worker, Bob Mervine, who wrote a book called Orlando Chow. He has since passed away, but back in the day he knew every restaurant in town, and would tell you that some of the best were the little family-owned shops in strip malls.

One day while a bunch of us were out to lunch at Bob’s new favorite Mexican restaurant, I ordered burritos, as I usually do at Mexican places, and was delivered a platter with enough food for three people.

I asked Bob why restaurant portions are always so huge.

“It’s the perception of value,” he said. “The majority of a restaurant’s expenses are in the property and the staff. So they can give you more food without increasing their expenses by much. Then you think you’re getting a lot for your money.”

Yeah, I’m getting too much for my money, as my waistline clearly shows.

The intellectual response to this is, “Well, just don’t eat the whole thing.”

The problem is, most humans will instinctively eat whatever is in front of them. That goes double when you’re distracted by conversation or TV. When your conscious mind is engaged with something else, your instincts take over the eating process. Which is why, long after you’ve consumed enough calories to sustain you for a day, you keep eating chips or rolls or breadsticks or whatever grain-based cheap food the restaurant supplies endlessly so they can appear generous.

Just as an example, let’s take my favorite, Chipotle. A single Chipotle chicken bowl contains about half the calories I need for a day all by itself. Add chips, and I have enough calories for the whole day. Maybe more than enough, if I don’t make it to the gym that day. Never mind how many calories might be in the soda, or in the ice cream you get next door afterward. (Is it just in Orlando that an ice cream shop always goes in next door to the Chipotle? Those guys are onto something, I swear.)

I recently signed on with a health coach to help me get my eating under control. It’s been hard, not because of restaurant food (I haven’t gone to any restaurants lately), but because of my church.

You know how it is. There has to be food at fellowship time. We had a special meeting last night, and sure enough, those good church folks brought cookies and whatnot. As much as I knew I shouldn’t, I indulged, because I instinctively eat whatever is in front of me.

I once worked at a church retreat where, in addition to the three square meals a day served by the retreat center, the staff provided snacks almost hourly. Not only healthy snacks like fruit and cheese, but absolute crack like chips, cookies, and fudge. As we were setting up the food service area, I said to one of the other staffers, “This strikes me as way too much food for the number of people we have.”

She said, “It represents God’s abundance.”

God does provide abundantly for us. But you know our enemy can take what’s meant for our good and turn it against us.


If we’re not careful, it’ll kill us.

About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

4 comments on “Why Portion Sizes Are Out of Control

  1. Great observations, Kristen. In pondering your last statement, I can see there are a number of areas where this is true.

    So many inventions for efficiency result in lost opportunities for health (less walking, scrubbing, mixing, grinding, reaching, climbing). Foods made for convenience are pumped full of preservatives, extra sugars and calories, and lacking in nutrients.

    Even relationships are now so abundantly available that it is ridiculously easy to overcommitment and fill all one’s time while neglecting those relationships that are most important.

  2. I’m with you on food at church and other gatherings. I get it for certain events like a Moms Night Out event or a small group pot luck but week to week, I prefer food-free gatherings. I too have a hard time not eating what’s in front of me. Now if I could only break my late-night popcorn while writing addiction.

  3. Good point. When we have so much, we appreciate so little. When my wife and I eat at a fast food restaurant, we order medium fries and share those. We used to order a large size, but found it was too much food. Sharing and eating smaller portions helped our waistlines grow smaller too. 🙂

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