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The increase in the portion sizes in various restaurants and fast food joints in the US have increased by 2-5 times over the past few decades (Wright et.al., 2004; Nielson & Popkin, 2003). Portion sizes in restaurants have also increased significantly in Europe as well (Steenhuis & Vermeer, 2009; Matthiessen et.al., 2003; Rozin et.al., 2003). During the same period, obesity and other weight related problems have increased significantly in the US and in the Western world as well (Nielson & Popkin, 2003; Steenhuis & Vermeer, 2009).
Authors (Nielson & Popkin, 2003; Wansink & Chandon, 2006; Rozin et.al., 2003; Ledikwe et.al., 2005; Tappy & Lê, 2010) have linked the above mentioned two phenomenon as a cause and effect relationship with the former as the cause of the latter. However, Wright et.al. (2004) links the portion size increase paired with lack of energy burning activities (exercise) as the reasons behind the global obesity problem. The issue has become so serious that the US surgeon general has had to call it 'an epidemic' (Wansink & Chandon, 2006).
For a long time, consumption of fast food was considered as the root cause of obesity (Paquet et.al., 2010). The 2004 movie 'Supersize Me 'by Morgan Spurlock directly blamed McDonalds as the cause of obesity in the USA. However, these days, as the above mentioned literature would suggest, regular and upscale restaurants are also sharing blames for this obesity epidemic.
Ledikwe et.al. (2005) also observes that a bigger portion (compared to that in a household meal) in the restaurants (almost everywhere across the globe) may have stemmed from the increased appetite size of the patrons as restaurant frequenters mostly tend to working people. Let us take an example of a typical Swedish meal consisting of Meatballs (köttbuller), cream sauce (gräddesås), and mashed potatoes (potatismos). In my personal experience, the regular portion size at a household would consist of 6-12 meatballs whereas at a restaurant the portion size is always between 12-18 meatballs with more amount of sauce. So, a person eating at the restaurant would be getting at least 50% more calories by normal calculations.
A restaurant's pricing strategy of meal servings has been subject to scrutiny by Steenhuis and Vermeer (2009). They argue that by making the larger portion prices more lucrative, the restaurants are alluring the consumers to select and consume an unnecessary amount of food and thus are contributing towards the obesity epidemic. For example, an 10 oz. Rib-eye Steak at the Outback Steakhousein Plano, Texas is priced at $15.99 while the price for a 12 oz. Steak is $17.99. Similar tactics are employed by almost all the restaurants across the globe. In the above example, it would be very hard for a consumer to not order the 12 oz. version of the steak as it is clearly a better buy. Now those extra 2 oz. would amount to about 200 more calories for just a $2 addition.
Wansink & Chandon (2006), Steenhuis and Vermeer (2009), and Islam and Ullah (2010) finds another dimension to this obesity epidemic as well. According to these authors, these days people (especially in the Western world) eat out a lot more than they used to a couple of decades ago. Wansink & Chandon (2006) shows that an average restaurant meal consist of roughly 1000-1500 kcal/portion and could very well result in excess calorie intake for that day. By frequenting the restaurants more than 3 times per week, a person risks storing more calories in his/her body than s/he can burn. This piece of fact paired with the knowledge that people are exercising less (Wright et.al., 2004) leaves us to no doubt to the cause (if not the only one, at least a major one) of the obesity epidemic.
A popular defense against the portion size argument comes in the form of the 'French Paradox' that refers to the fact that despite having a high fat cuisine and known to eat out more than other cultures, the French remain slim, slender, and relatively fit. Rozin et.al., (2003) investigated this paradox and found that the French portion sizes are smaller when compared to those of the US or other Western nations. Also, the French take longer time to eat and more importantly they eat less than the rest of the world.
However, all the blames should not be put on the restaurants alone. Popular food items today have high energy density and this density can be attributed to much of the obesity related problems (Ledikwe et.al., 2005). Tappy & Lê (2010) observes higher amount of sucrose (resulting from increased usage of corn syrup, cane sugar, and processed honey) in our food items causes, among many other diseases, obesity. Needless to say these high sucrose foods (such as white bread, sauces of various kinds, pancakes, cakes, various pastries etc.) also tend to be very popular. The restaurants can hardly be blamed for carrying the popular dishes of our times as their primary aim is to be profitable.
In conclusion, we cannot deny that the increase of meal portion sizes in the restaurants, both traditional and fast food, plays a major role in today's global health decline, especially towards the obesity epidemic. By serving unhealthy, high energy dense, and high sucrose food items without proper and adequate information disclosure, the restaurants are making us vulnerable to increased health risks.
Having said all that, blame cannot be given alone to the restaurants also. It is us, the patrons, who frequent those restaurants, do not burn enough calories, do not pay attention to the nutritional information in the restaurant menus, and eat more than is required. Some blame should lie with us as well.
So, to conclude, we should be worried about the increase in the restaurant potion sizes but we should also find a way check our hedonistic traits and find ways to become for physically active at the same time.