Monday, October 12, 2009

Matters of Size

Recently, I watched an old episode of Saturday Night Live from the days when Dan Akroyd and John Belushi were part of the cast. I saw many of these episodes in re-runs when I was a kid in the days when you couldn't record T.V. programs unless you had a VCR and enough tapes around to waste on things like SNL. There are plenty of things that I didn't notice then that I'm noticing now. One of them was how incredibly thin both Gilda Radner and Laraine Newman were. Both of these women had eating disorders (bulimia in Radner's case). Jane Curtain was the only woman who had something resembling a real body, but even she was quite thin.

There was one of the "cheeseburger, cheeseburger, Pepsi, Pepsi" skits in the episode that I was watching and I was noting the atmospheric parts of the skit. Since the show is now a part of the increasingly distant past, I often try to note the hairstyles, clothes, and set details for things which indicate the flavor of the time.

One of the things I noticed was that the grill that Dan Akroyd was using in his role as the cook was real and he was using pre-made burger patties and plastic-wrapped cheese slices. The other thing I noticed was how small the burgers looked when they were served and how the cheese slices, which I believe were almost certainly 1 ounce Kraft slices, loomed rather large on top of the smallish hamburgers. Since the patties were perfectly round and flat, I'd also wager that someone just bought them frozen for use as a prop on the show. That means that these were considered a normal burger size at that time.

One of the things I have realized since starting to modify my eating habits is how restaurants have distorted our view of what constitutes a serving size. Seeing those small burgers being served on SNL only 30 years ago goes a long way toward explaining how we got to where we are today in terms of the dramatic increase in obese and overweight people.

The portion size ballooning has been based on the economic interests of restaurants and their employees. The main expense of running a restaurant is not from the food itself, but from the people who prepare and serve it and the investment in equipment and space rental. Giving people bigger servings gives them the perception of value for the experience. For a marginal increase in food purchase expense, they can greatly increase the prices and subsequently make a higher profit while attracting value-minded people who want to get a substantial meal for the expense and effort of going to a restaurant.

If you read comments by waiters and waitresses, they actually want people to order as much as possible so that they get a bigger tip. The last thing they want is for a couple or group to order and split appetizers, desserts, and entrees to reduce calories because the total bill is lower, but their time spent doing the job is the same. If you try to reduce calories by splitting your huge order, you are often treated badly or given worse service by resentful service staff.

I think people used to regard the value of going to a restaurant differently than they do now. People used to be happy just to go to one as a rare and special experience with differently prepared food. Now, they are going to restaurants more often and instead of cooking and shopping. They want to eat more so that they get value for their money, but the portions are so epically large that they're overeating. What is more, they get a distorted view of what one serving should look like from repeated exposure to over-sized portions. At this point in time, any restaurant that attempted to offer reasonable serving sizes would be seen as skimping and lose business.

I don't know that there is a solution to this problem aside from education and encouraging restaurants of all types to at least offer smaller portion options. I think that what is commonly see as the "child's" menu portions may actually be what we're supposed to be eating as adults to stay at a healthy weight. That's rather a scary thought.