Friday, April 20, 2007


The short answer:

We eat more food than our bodies need to do the things we do.

The slightly longer answer:

There are actually a lot of reasons. Where to begin!

According to a new study, people tend to eat whatever is put in front of them – regardless of how large or small the portion size. The reason? A "culturally induced" norm that presumes the portion in front of you is appropriate. Researchers call it the “unit bias.” We don’t think about the amount of food in front of us – we just work to clean our plates until the entire “unit” is gone. And in the land of plenty, that unit has gotten a lot bigger over the years. So every time you say, “Supersize me,” you aren’t kidding. In recent years we've been hearing the dietitian's mantra "smaller portions, smaller portions" but you really don't see it very often. In fact, given our historically unprecedented surplus of food, the opposite tends to be true.


To get the biggest deal on something, you have to buy more of it. Companies call this the volume discount, and it rewards those consumers willing to stock up – purchasing more of a product for a lower price per unit. Supermarkets are able to keep prices low by dealing in volume sales. So it’s no wonder that sale prices on food these days include such amazing volume discounts as “Buy one, get one free!” and “Get 10 for $10!” Supply greatly exceeds demand, so they want you to buy more and keep that product moving off their shelves and into your pantry. Think about all the food you throw away - or the cans and boxes you've had forever. Dig around and you'll find tons of food you probably will never open and eat - but that at one time seemed like a great buy. We're up to our eyeballs in food, so we can eat pretty much whenever we want to - whether we're hungry or not. And, not surprisingly, the more food we buy, the more we eat.

This look is becoming hot!

Here’s something else that should not shock you. Obesity rates in America have increased in 49 of the 50 states. The only state that hasn't been getting fatter was Oregon. Big Vegan population out there. Lovers of soy, tofu, and organics. Or maybe just more eating disorders. Why are the rest of us getting so damn chubby? I’ll tell you why.

Since 1929, the percentage of disposable income the typical American spends on food has dropped from 25% to 10%. Let’s take a moment to discuss how these figures influence our figures.

It takes less money, as a percentage of disposal income, for Americans to feed themselves than any other people on earth. The result is that we can afford to eat more than any other people. It sounds simple to say, but one reason we eat more is because we can - which makes us no better than most dogs. They'll eat and drink themselves sick if you let them. I don't know about you, but that sure sounds like Thanksgiving to me.


Have you ever taken notice of what the folks at Applebee’s and Lone Star pile onto your plate? Our portions are enormous. With few exceptions, restaurants heap on the helpings, often serving enough food for two people, or two meals, at a single time – not because you NEED that much food to feel full, but so that they can charge you for it. It's the idea of bulk grocery sales applied to the restaurant biz. If they served you half the amount of food and charged you half the price for it, but you still took up a table for an hour, they’d lose a lot of money! Restaurants deal in volume sales, too. So they load you up with more than you can handle - and charge you for it. And we gladly pay...because it’s hard to complain about that $12 lunch when you walk away from your table so stuffed you think you might pass out.

This is to say nothing of what’s going on at fast food joints where the trend has been to supersize everything. They even made the diameter of their straws wider so you’ll down your corn-sweetened drink faster! Straws never used to be that wide. But they figured out that you'd be able to consume more, and faster, if they improved the cup-to-mouth vehicle.

All of this is very easy to understand when you look at it from a business perspective. There’s a big supply of food in the U.S. – and Americans are only spending 10% of their disposable income on it. So the idea is to get as much food into as many mouths as fast as possible…and to keep the food coming.

I live alone, and I can’t tell you how much food goes to waste at my place. The main reason is that everything comes in bulk and family size. Milk, bread, eggs, cereal – even most of the basics expire, get old, grow stale, or go moldy before I have a chance to finish them. I suppose I could stop at the store every day on my way home from work and buy just what I need for dinner – but that's not convenient for me. And it wouldn’t be the American way! So, instead, I stock up, fill up, and throw out what I don’t use. What could be more American than waste? Aside from a deadly oil addiction, of course.

This is what portion control is all about.

I think shopping and portion control would be a lot easier for people like me if manufacturers made single servings. But try buying a box, bag, or can of anything at the grocery store that’s just one serving. Even the smallest of containers – the ones that look like they would contain a single serving – contain two servings! And what constitutes a single serving anyhow? Who decided that I needed 12 full ounces of sugar water in my can of Coke? I’m not a thirsty person and have a hard time finishing all 12 ounces, so for me, 8oz is just fine. And yet whenever I get a 12oz. can, I almost always end up finishing the whole thing – because I paid for it and don’t like pouring money down the drain. It's the "unit bias" hard at work. Pepsi actually introduced smaller 8oz. cans for a while – and they were perfect for me.
But they've been slow to catch on because they're more expensive per unit.

Another reason we’re so fat is that our lives revolve around meals. Virtually every social gathering has a meal of some kind. Holidays and special occasions are all about the grub: the Thanksgiving feast, the Memorial Day cookout, the birthday cake, the romantic Valentine’s Day dinner, the Easter brunch, and on and on and on. Every time people get together there’s food. And people are always asking what they can bring because you can’t show up to a gathering empty-handed. You’ve got to bring food! How about a dip or a dessert? I have a better idea – how about someone brings a guitar, someone brings a bocce ball set, and someone brings a volleyball net. We don’t need 20 saran wrapped side dishes jammed next to one another on a card table, especially when we KNOW we’re going to want to try them all.

Parties and barbecues and street festivals. Wherever there are people, there are people eating, buying, and selling food. And you know what you’ll find pretty much everywhere? Not broccoli, that's for sure. Hot dogs! Fatty, processed meat parts squeezed into a sheer sheath for quick, convenient consumption. Look on the package, friends. Yeah – it REALLY says “mechanically-separated turkey” on there. Deee-lish! So while we're always eating, we're not eating particularly well.


We can’t help it – to live we must eat. But when you live in the land of plenty, eating is not just an act of nourishment. It’s something to do. Think about it. Meals are neatly woven into our social fabric. Let’s “do” lunch. Get together for coffee. Host a dinner party. Grab a bite to eat. Hit the drive-thru. Order a pizza. And there are more food choices in America today than ever before - in the history of the world! Every neighborhood, strip mall, main street, and interstate rest stop has a nauseating number of fast food options to choose from. Pepto anyone?

Add to this tremendous bounty the fact that our pace of life has changed and it's a blueprint for waistline expansion. We no longer wake up and enjoy a healthy, hearty breakfast, take a small lunch to work, and relax with a home-cooked dinner. We grab something on the go. We eat out for lunch. We either order in or fire up the microwave for dinner. We say we don’t have time to cook anymore, but the truth is that we don’t have time because we don’t need time like we used to. The corporation has made it cheap and easy for us to feed ourselves, and fast. There was a time people scraped by on what they had. They stretched a loaf of molding bread and a dozen eggs. They drank sour milk. They turned spoiled leftovers into soup. It's hard to fatten up on a few hundred calories a day. Just ask Lindsay Lohan.


Trivia fact: The states with the highest rates of obesity are Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia, Louisiana and Tennessee. I just included this so you can throw it out at a party while you’re grazing on deep-fried appetizers.


Why do we eat so much? Yes, WE. Don’t lie – I know what’s in your fridge. Crap, and lots of it. It’s no mystery we’re so damn fat. We eat every meal like it’s our last supper.

Why is any of this important? Because the number one killer in America is heart disease. (Smoking is a not-so-distant second) We’re eating ourselves to death! But there's actually a lot more to our obesity than an insatiable appetite. While our diets are not fantastic, diet is only a PART of the overall equation. Diet is what you put IN your system; it’s the summation of everything that finds its way into your belly. When I’m drunk, I let my guard down and that’s when the super burritos with extra sour cream and cheese sneak in. (Damn! I just made myself hungry)

Anyhow, the point is that you don’t get fat just because you eat a lot. What you do when you’re NOT eating plays an equally important role. That's called activity, and the more you get, the better off you are.

Science has been generous enough to permit us a measure by which we can determine how food is converted to energy. It’s called the calorie. A calorie is the standard unit of measurement equal to the amount of heat required to raise one gram of water one degree Celsius. Blah blah blah. What you need to know about calories is that the foods you eat and the things you do can both be measured in them. If you eat more calories than you burn doing things, your body starts stashing them in places you don’t want them.

I ran some numbers to see how many calories I burn doing some of the things I do. Basketball for 70 minutes: 550 calories. Beach volleyball for 50 minutes: 500 calories. Very nice. Cycling for a half hour: 245 calories. Vigorous sex for 6 minutes – 12 calories. Wait a second. That's it? I work harder than THAT! According to my source here, it says I burn more calories brushing my teeth. That can’t be right! Oh well…12 calories are 12 calories. Hell, looks like I burn 78 calories an hour just WRITING. Every little bit counts, people.

Here’s a great calorie counter. You enter your weight, the activity, and the duration and it will spit out the number of calories you’ll burn. I found out that I would have to jog an hour and a half to burn off the calories in a Whopper with cheese. That doesn’t include the coke and fries!

The good news is that you burn calories doing everything. Getting out of bed, washing your hair, brushing your teeth, climbing stairs, picking your nose – everything you do requires energy. And that energy comes from the food you eat, which can be measured in calories.

I personally think most people have it all backward. We eat first, then try to work off the calories later. But it’s not all about the calories we EAT. It’s also about the calories we BURN. The more calories we burn during the course of the day, the more calories our body will “need” to sustain a healthy level of activity. So a better strategy might be to figure out how many calories we need to sustain a healthy weight, then moderate our food intake accordingly. And as our activity level changes, adjust our diet.

Adjusting what you eat, as anyone who has ever tried dieting knows, is much easier said than done, especially when our activity level fluctuates from day to day, season to season, and year to year. I personally know that I tend to put on a few LBs during the winter months because I’m nowhere near as active as I am when the weather is warm. In fact, there’s not a whole lot else to do in Chicago BUT eat (and bitch) during the winter. So when it’s cold out, I know I need to control my calorie intake by consuming healthier foods. During the summer when I’m active outdoors, prancing about (nude) in the glorious sunshine, I can usually afford to eat that 4th bratwurst at the game – because I end up burning it off doing drunk cartwheels on the long walk home.

No – changing eating habits is not easy, but it’s important. Here’s a story that may sound familiar to many of you. Most of us were far more active when we were younger, and back then we needed a lot of calories to keep going, going, going all the time. We became accustomed to eating a certain amount of food to sustain that level of energy. Then, as we got older, we started collecting things like partners, careers, mortgages, and kids – all of which required more of our time and attention, slowing us down considerably. So today we don’t get the exercise we need to burn off the same amount of food we’ve been eating since we were 18! Our appetite never changed, just our activity. The result? Weight gain. We get so tired from working, we go right home, eat dinner, and sit on the couch in front of the television. Often with a bag of chips. We end up eating the same amount of food we ate when we were young and active, but don’t keep up the same active lifestyle.

And that brings us right back to the short answer: When we take in a lot more calories than we burn, we store fat.

Maybe as adults we need to reintroduce ourselves to the concept of “recess.” Recess for the workplace. Remember when you were a kid? Second grade? Half way through morning you’d hear that bell and run screaming into the schoolyard to kick a big rubber ball, skip rope, or beat up someone smaller than you. Those were the days. Even in high school we had P.E. class. Physical education. Soccer. Swimming. Track. We didn’t think about it much back then, but the exercise was good for us. Exercise burns calories.

People like to focus on dieting because finding the time to be active isn’t easy. When you were a kid, you probably ran around all the time. You played, you jumped, you swam, you rolled around in the mud. You were always moving. Now you sit in a chair. I think all workplaces should have workstations set up on treadmills - I call them Work-out stations, or Treadicles. You can work and keep active at the same time.


Want to know your body mass index? Click here to find out.

Enter your weight and height in inches and it will automatically calculate it for you. Your BMI can help you know whether you are “at risk” for a weight-related illnesses. It essentially correlates the ratio between your height and weight with body fat. If your BMI is 25 or higher, you could be at risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, low-back pain, menstrual disturbances, skin and psychological disorders.

My BMI is 25 – which is considered low risk for weight-related illnesses. I was happy to hear that, and so was my tongue which has been craving a beef enchilada all day.

Bon appetite!

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