Portion distortion

As portions have become bigger over the past thirty years, so have South Africans' waistlines, says Anne Till, a registered dietician and Discovery’s nutrition consultant. The serving sizes of foods sold in restaurants and at home have become much larger.

About 56% of women and 29% of men in South Africa are considered to be overweight or clinically obese today. An increase in the prevalence of obesity has also been reported in other developing nations undergoing transition such as Mexico and Brazil. We are following similar trends..

Within our modern day environment it appears that we are actually eating more food and more calories than we did between three to five decades ago.

In South Africa trends indicate that food availability has risen from an average of 2603 calories per person per day in 1962, to 2921 calories per person per day in 2001. That is about a 300-calorie increase per person per day.

This data also reveals that available fat in the diet increased from 61,2g to 79g per person per day and carbohydrates from 445g to 478g per person per day.

American food consumption trends are similar. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA reveals that men have increased food their intake from 2450 kilocalories in 1971 to 2618 kilocalories in 2000.

Trends among women are similar, with the average increasing from 1542 kilocalories in 1971 to 1877 kilocalories in 2000.

These results are representative of global food consumption trends. At the same time, as food consumption increased over the years, activity levels around the globe have decreased.

So, where do these excess calories come from?

Bigger portions

From research in the USA it appears that portion sizes began to increase from 1970, rose sharply in 1980 and have continued to increase with each decade. This increase runs parallel to the increasing incidence of obesity and overweight.

To illustrate this, consider some data from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA: it is estimated that the average American consumed approximately 1497 pounds of food per person per year in 1970. This rose to a whopping 1775 pounds of food per person per year in the year 2000. That is a 278-pound increase per person per year – which translates into a lot of extra food.

Researchers report that portion-size changes are part of the “supersizing” phenomenon seen at fast food establishments and at restaurants. While the use of takeaway foods and restaurant dining have played a role in promoting larger portion sizes, it appears that portion sizes both inside and outside of the home environment have increased.

This shift to larger portion sizes within the home environment indicates marked changes in eating behaviour which need to be addressed.

According to another survey on food portion sizes, it was found that the actual sizes of food portions consumed were significantly larger than those advocated as healthy by US government regulatory bodies.

For example, it was found that the average portion of pasta was 480%, muffins 333%, steaks 224% and bagels 195% larger than recommended. The largest excess over recommended health standards was found in the cookie category, where portion sizes were 700% bigger than recommended.

Losing our perspective?

With the global trend in food consumption, it seems like we have lost our perspective on what a suitable portion of food is. Health authorities clearly state that educating people on which foods to eat and which foods not to eat is not enough. An equally important issue is the quantity of food being consumed.

Till says that one should not target restricting single nutrients in the diet such as fat, carbohydrates or protein. Rather, South Africans should eat the best foods from each group.

South Africans should not believe that the amount of food that a restaurant serves is the correct portion as people of all shapes and sizes receive the same portion in restaurants.

Till recommends that you increase the proportion of fruit and vegetables and decrease the proportion of high-calorie foods such as French fries and soft drinks in your diet.

Choose whole-grain, high-fibre foods, eat oily fish, but restrict your intake of saturated and trans fats, e.g. fast food. Be cautious of free sugars, such as cane sugar, which is the most commonly used food additive.

Tips to manage your plate

  • Use smaller glasses, cups, plates and serving spoons
  • Read food labels
  • Share meals
  • Eat slowly
  • Do not eat in front of the television
  • Do not serve from the table as it makes it easier to have seconds.

- (Discovery/Health24, January 2007)

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