It’s no secret that American portion sizes are out of control.
According to the National Institute of Health, food portions in America’s restaurants have doubled, and in some cases, tripled in the last few decades. The increased helpings of soda, burgers and ice cream (among many other high-calorie offenders) have grown concurrently with our increasing waistlines.
Some don’t seem too worried about it, though. In fact, certain fast food chains have leaned into our culture of ever increasing portions and are celebrating them.
Right now, Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. are proudly advertising a new burger dressed with a hot dog and potato chips. It’s touted as “The Most American Thick Burger.”
The burger is sold under the guise of camp. You know what I mean if you’ve seen the commercial. It’s over-the-top machismo and patriotism. It’s culinary manifest destiny. As Americans, we need, nay, deserve a burger that’s 1,190 calories and has 3,170mg of sodium for no other reason than, “‘Murrica!”
They’re not the only culprits either. The Olive Garden offers a Never Ending Pasta Bowl. Arby’s recently offered a sandwich called “The Meat Mountain.” TGI Fridays has promoted Endless Appetizers. “Man vs Food,” a show built around the idea of one regular guy eating obscene amounts of food, ran for four seasons.
The list goes on and on.
The message is simple: bigger is better. It’s your right, and duty, to seek more even if you don’t really need it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a home, car or burger. You’re an American and that means more.
This sentiment didn’t necessarily start from a bad place. When immigrants came to this country to start new lives, like my great-great grandparents, there was a comparative embarrassment of riches. It didn’t seem like such a bad thing to have extra food around or to be able to feed your children second helpings.
That attitude persisted throughout the decades, but the context was lost. Lives became more comfortable and the bounty increased…and increased. Many Americans of a certain class were never really in danger of missing a meal, but it didn’t stop them from eating like it.
I’ve seen this sort of thing first hand.
I grew up in the Upper Midwest, and there was peculiar sort of pride in gastronomic feats. “Who wants seconds?” was a common phrase. Dads slapped their sons on the back and exclaimed to family and friends, “Can you believe how much this kid puts away!” Cleaning your plate of a huge portion of meat and several sides and asking for more was not seen as over indulgence. It was seen as growing boys and girls eating a hearty meal, dontcha know!
It extended to restaurants as well. I can’t really think of a time where my family went out to eat at a small, “fancy” restaurant. Generally, we went to chain restaurants. Instead of eating a realistically portioned, quality dish and learning about cuisine, we were treated to all you can eat fried shrimp and giant burgers.
I learned to equate the quality of food with the amount of food for the lowest price. Those places were thought of as “good” restaurants because you could eat as much as you could stomach for $13.99 a person.
And woe unto the people with modest appetites. I wasn’t a bigger eater as an adolescent, and I was tacitly made to feel about it. I don’t think it was born out of conscious or malicious decisions by my friends and family, but I definitely noticed.
I noticed when my friends would look at my plate and exclaim with incredulity, “It looks like you barely ate anything!” I noticed when my mom’s friend told me flatly, “You need to eat more.” I noticed when my dad would laugh about my brother’s appetite and tell friends, “Yeah, he can eat!”
I felt like I wasn’t living up to some mythical Midwestern ideal for not clearing my plate occasionally. Not only that, I started to feel like I was wasting food even though I shouldn’t have been trying to eat that much in the first place.
That’s the problem. These things are sinister in their subtleness. Well, not that Hardee’s commercial. There’s nothing subtle about that. Anyway, these attitudes are cloaked in good-natured concern. My parents never worried about feeding us too much; they worried about feeding us enough. But how were they to know what was actually enough?
Furthermore, those lessons weren’t exactly great to internalize at an impressionable age. Sure, it’s fine when you’re a growing teenager with a sky-high metabolism, but, as you get older, it catches up with you. It took years to deprogram my preconceived notions. I had no idea what a healthy portion looked like until I took an interest in food and started cooking for myself.
So, if our fast food chains really insist that “Murrica!” is enough of an excuse to eat, why not exercise some real American values like education and self-reliance? Educate yourself about proper portions and learn to cook yourself at least one meal a week that won’t induce a heart attack.
I promise, after a while, you won’t even miss that burger.