The old adage ‘when America sneezes then the rest of the world catches a cold’ seemingly goes beyond just the financial markets; the obesity epidemic, cultivated by the American diet, has officially gone global. With the recent development of Eastern economies, the tentacles of the US food and drink corporates have spread far and wide, leading to an explosion in availability of calorie-dense fast food and sugary drinks.
The UAE seems to have suffered worse than most, with two thirds of the population considered overweight, UAE children are now 1.8 times more obese than their US counterparts, and 40 per cent of teens now classified as overweight. So what’s driving this?
The causes are multi-factorial and deeply-rooted, none more so than the toxic food environment that surrounds us. Everyone knows that eating enough of the wrong food makes us fat, but almost no-one can identify a normal portion size, regardless of age, nationality, or whether the person is of normal weight or over-weight.
Super-sized portions have distorted what people consider normal; the amount of food available has directly reset our perception of consumption norms. This trend towards acknowledging larger portions as being appropriate is known as ‘portion distortion’. Our confusion over portion sizing is compounded by the fact that we have lost so many of our basic instincts about cooking. Instead, we remain at the mercy of the food and drink corporations.
Portions started to increase in the 1970s, when the food industry began to stagnate. The opportunists’ wasted no time in establishing that customers happily paid more for larger sized portions. Significantly for the sellers, profits increased when product size increased. By the late 1970s, the food industry knew the food we found hardest to resist were rich in sugar and trans-fats. At the same time, farming and refining methods improved, consequently leading to a reduction in production cost. Needless to say ‘super-sizing’ exploded in the 1980s. In contrast to old practices, fast food companies began promoting larger sized value meals, restaurants started using larger dinner plates, bakers began baking bigger, and drinks sold under names like ‘Double Gulp’.
Marketing became more concentrated, with companies spending billions on junk food and sugary drink advertising, targeting the most vulnerable in society, including children. Amongst the increasing price competition, they released larger numbers of products in order to retain and expand market share. Big Food Industry didn’t stop at manipulating our portion sizes, they created an entirely new category called ‘snack food’. Not only were we now eating larger portions, they had us grazing from morning to night; encouraging multi-buy promotions on everything from ready-made meals to snacks, sweets and chocolate.
Customers demanded more bang for their buck, otherwise called ’value-sizing’. They began choosing restaurants based on portion sizes, and food products on the size of the packet. So much so, over the years, larger portions have become so pervasive within the food environment that we can’t avoid it even if we wanted to. It is thus not simply a matter of personal choice.
Unfortunately, to top it all off, science would dictate that humans had a propensity to over-eat. The problem being, whether you want the food or not, the more you’re served, the more you eat. People tend to habitually clean their plate regardless of portion size.
There is somewhat limited information available about serving sizes, and people are unable to correctly assess the amount they are eating. Often people are unable to tell the difference in portion size when offered different sizes on different days, with the error in estimating becoming greater as portions increase.
Furthermore, we are a nation where moderation does not fit with our culture of food. We dine out regularly which can increase energy intake not only because of portion size, but also because we eat more in the company of others. In a convivial atmosphere we have a tendency to choose foods with high energy density, for greater reward. This consistent over-eating has led to increased appetite, requiring more food to feel satisfied. The vicious cycle has been set in motion by the food and drinks industry playing on the weakness of human nature. Corporate greed and a systematic political failure to protect citizens from the manipulations of the food and drinks industry have brought health care to its knees.
This trend won’t stop unless people consciously change their eating habits and ask for something different; moving away from the notion that associates quantity with quality. Following the release of the documentary Supersize Me in 2004, McDonalds dropped its oversize options. Cynically, they were re-introduced soon after, but this time masqueraded as a ‘large’. Big Food is very successful at adopting a corporate strategy of denial: by planting doubt, confusing the public, bribing political allies and even buying the loyalty of rogue scientists. They have been central in pushing misconceptions, using tactics similar to those employed by the tobacco industry, to elide its culpability in causing obesity.
The UN has identified alcohol, tobacco and poor diet as central risk factors contributing to the world burden of disease. Alcohol and tobacco have been regulated by governments in order to protect public health, but poor diet is actually responsible for more disease than alcohol, tobacco and physical inactivity combined. It took 50 years from when the first scientific association was made between smoking and lung cancer before any effective legislation was introduced through regulation. The government must consider what constitutes a healthy average portion and provide this information to both industry and consumers. To have personal responsibility, you need information and choice, and people have neither. Making people aware of what they are consuming gives them the control and choice to order it, fully knowing the implications. It may just discourage us from ‘supersizing‘ our next meal, or ordering that Double Gulp to accompany an already calorie-laden burger.
Don’t Over-Eat: 5 Portion Control Tips
Full Up On Water
Often we confuse dehydration with hunger. Fill up on water before meals and you will naturally eat less as you should already be feeling full.
When researchers at Purdue University found that high-protein eaters felt more satisfied and less hungry. Plus, over a course of 12 weeks of a high protein diet they preserved more lean body mass. Lean, high protein foods include egg whites, tuna, chicken, black beans, chickpeas, and edamames.
Fill Up On Veggies
Now don’t go crazy as too much of anything, even if it is veggies, can be bad for you. But filling up on your greens and veggies such as spinach, mushrooms and broccoli will help fill you up for longer.
Top Up Your Fibre
Fibre will make you feel full faster and for longer – win/win! Aim to get at least 25 g fibre a day. This doesn’t mean through bread and pasta, fibre can be found in less calorific apples and carrots.
Measure Things Out
It may sound silly but it’s only when measuring out our food that we will truly realise how much we actually eat. Try it for at least one day and we guarantee you will be shocked.
Words: Dr Nas Al-Jafari