August 13, 2020

Large portions are also to blame for obesity | Science

The size of the portions does matter.

If we ate only to satisfy the physiological need to obtain nutrients and energy to meet our requirements, it is likely that the size of the ration had no impact on the amount of food eaten.

We would eat the necessary and we would stop when we did not need more.

But we know that there are many other factors that affect the perception of hunger and satiety: psychological, social, endocrine or even, the type and composition of food. These elements take us away from a mechanism that is as intuitive as eating only through hunger and stopping once our needs have been met.

We consume more food and drinks if they are offered in larger portions. This mechanism also affects the feeding behavior and weight of children

Our environment plays a leading role in the difficulties we have to interpret our primitive sensations of hunger.

We live in a obesogenic environment It promotes the ingestion of unhealthy foods and does not facilitate the practice of physical activity. But, in addition to the strategies planned to alter political decisions, or the aggressive advertising campaigns that place unhealthy foods as the first option, we have interpreted "eating well" and "eating a lot" as synonyms.

Companies have taken advantage of it to use the amounts as a claim: we found striking offers of two for one, snacks in family-size packages, 50% more product at the same price.

Fighting against the environment

The British Nutrition Foundation (an entity in which academics, educators, communicators and the food industry participate, not the professional organization The Association of UK Dietitians) Has published a guide to guide the population on the proper size that their food rations should have.

Using hands as a unit of measure, they adapt the intake recommendations of each food. A serving of cheese will be two thumbs. A serving of pasta, which fits us by putting our hands together as if they were a bowl. Visual, simple and personalized (the size of the hands is according to the body size, which -among other factors- conditions the requirements).

It is not the first manual that translates food guides into homemade portions and, in fact, many classic guides incorporate this information.

Beyond the usefulness of these guidelines, what we should ask ourselves is: have we lost so much perspective that it is necessary to be told what amount of food is normal?

The sad answer is yes.

Precisely to return the population the ability to interpret their needs and adapt their intake to them (that is, to restore autonomy) the most up-to-date guides based on scientific evidence and free of conflicts of interest have changed the format and issue messages not focused on the size of the ration. Concepts such as "more, less, change" of the document "Small changes to eat better" or complete guides summarized in an image as the Harvard dish, the Canada's food guide, or the Belgian triangle of healthy eating give transparent, unequivocal and difficult information to distort.

Rations and bodies that increase in size

A graphic expression of this context is found in the increase in the sizes of junk food rations in the US since 1950. Hamburgers today are 223% larger, sugary drinks are served in glasses with a volume 5 times higher, chocolates have "grown" more than 1000%. And the body weight has done it in parallel: American women weigh 11 kilos more; the men have gained 13 kilos.

By serving smaller portions, the perception of what constitutes a "normal ration" changes downward and the amount ingested is reduced in the long run

Do not fall into the sufficiency of thinking that it is a problem inherent in the "American way of life" and that our culinary culture protects us from this effect.

The British Medical Journal just published a study in the researchers, they asked themselves precisely if this phenomenon occurred only in the US and in fast food chains. The conclusions show that "menus with very high caloric content are presented both in conventional restaurants and in restaurants fast-food and it is a generalized phenomenon that is probably behind global obesity and offers an opportunity for intervention. "

The scientific evidence

Although intuitively we could say that if we serve more food we eat more, to know if it is a problem to address we have to analyze the scientific data.

A 2015 Cochrane Review found that we consume more food and drinks if they are offered in larger portions. This mechanism also affects the feeding behavior and weight of children.

On the other hand, reducing the size of the rations has a impact in the same sense on body weight. A research published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition It has found that, by serving smaller portions, the perception of what constitutes a "normal ration" changes downwards and subsequently, when food is offered freely, the amount ingested is reduced. That is, we adjust our criteria to our needs again.

It is important to remember that the amount of food that we serve adults It also determines the rations that we consider appropriate for children. Therefore, what my section partner Julio Basulto expresses always makes even more sense: we must respect the appetite of children. We can not force them to eat what we consider "normal" because, as we have seen, it probably is not.

Face the problem

The figures have been alerting us for years: almost 40% of the Spanish adult population is overweight and more than 20% suffer from obesity. If we continue on this path, the forecast is that in the year 2030 55% of women and 80% of men in our country are overweight. If we were talking about another pathology, we would be desperate to prevent it.

The amount of food that we serve adults also determines the rations that we consider appropriate for children

Reducing the size of the rations will not change this trend. But how Marion Nestle was already pointing in 2002, incorporate it as one more strategy within the action plans against obesity, educating children and re-educating adults are useful tools.

UK is studying, among other measures, prohibit 2×1 offers, unhealthy foods next to supermarkets boxes, sugary drinks filled without cost in restaurants and the sale of "energy drinks" to children under 16 years of age.

Radical? No. The radical thing is to see how a disease is chronicled and not apply the measures that can stop its progress.

Beatriz Robles (@beatrizquality) is a food technologist, master in food safety audit and an enthusiast of scientific dissemination (

NUTRIATE WITH SCIENCE It is a section on food based on scientific evidence and knowledge contrasted by specialists. Eating is much more than a pleasure and a necessity: diet and eating habits are now the public health factor that can most help us prevent many diseases, from many types of cancer to diabetes. A team of dieticians-nutritionists will help us to better understand the importance of food and to tear down, thanks to science, the myths that lead us to eat badly.


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