Portion sizes a key to Ireland’s obesity problem

As portion sizes increase, especially for snack foods, Kevin O’Sullivan looks at ways to beat the bulge

Ray McCabe of McCabe’s Deli in Dublin who for Food Month is promoting his smaller-sized items to go with morning tea/coffee.Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times.

Ray McCabe of McCabe’s Deli in Dublin who for Food Month is promoting his smaller-sized items to go with morning tea/coffee.Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times.

 

One of the main reasons there is increasing obesity in Ireland is eating too much, and the finger can be pointed at bigger portion size as one of the worst contributory factors.

November is Food Month in The Irish Times, with food-related articles in all our sections, plus reader events, competitions and exclusive content at irishtimes.com/foodmonth
November is Food Month in The Irish Times, with food-related articles in all our sections, plus reader events, competitions and exclusive content at irishtimes.com/foodmonth

According to the UK Healthy Food Guide, snacks, treats and ready meals can be up to 200 per cent of their 1970s sizes. As a consequence bigger portions have become the norm in the home. It’s called “portion creep”; a phenomenon whereby the amounts we eat regularly become larger and are soon regarded as standard.

Factor in eating out more and the calorie count only goes in one direction. So, unquestionably reducing portion size is one highly effective way to reduce weight – the research confirms this, says Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan, director of Human Health and Nutrition with Safefood, the food safety promotion board.

If you favour guilt-free eating, the odd treat is part of the joy of life. In my case, that means a weakness for morning coffee and a small piece of chocolate, cake, or scone. But I am increasingly uneasy about the monstrosities that appear on coffee shop displays; one I encountered recently in a trendy Dublin outlet was the size of a cauliflower.

The Healthy Food Guide magazine recently presented a shocking outline of the “ever-expanding muffin”. I was raised on a standard size based on the standard baking tray that existed for decades; which is a 72g size – it was commonly known as a bun, or fairy cake. Now that would be classified as mini-muffin. The large muffin became more prevalent (clocking in at 85g) but that is frequently out-gunned by the maxi bun (130g) though it’s still intended to serve only one person. That marks a shift from 280 calories to 470 calories for one snack.

Similar increases are evident in other tea and coffee accompaniments such as chocolate cupcakes, croissants, fruit scones, and slices of cake. Larger portions in processed foods are constantly pushed at consumers.

Dr Foley-Nolan came across a case of a slice of lemon cake that had 1,000 calories which indicates, she believes, how portion size gone out of all proportion. What’s more, major food manufacturers are showing little inclination to reduce size in the face of rising obesity.

She cites “the myth of value” and the notion that large portions promote sharing when there is no evidence for it. Equally, there is little value if you are getting too much and not enjoying it. And making people feel guilty about their eating is not fair and not effective as a spur to action, Dr Foley-Nolan says.

We are all different biologically and neurologically. As a result, some are more susceptible to displays of cakes, or mega-sizes. “It’s not just laziness or gluttony. It’s just easier for others.”

The reality, however, is having something with a cup of coffee is “not a few spoonfuls of kale”. It’s something sweet, she says, classified as “empty calories” that are pleasant but don’t make you feel satisfied or full for long. She favours a variety of strategies in face of ever growing portions.

She suggests looking at amount and frequency, as well as acquainting oneself with, for example, the calories contained a biscuit. A “one instead of two approach”, while eating slowly and savouring the food, works. Having one latte instead of two in the course of day is another good ploy.

Switching to a small bunch of grapes can replace the wrong kind of sweetness; likewise having a small wholemeal option is a perfect alternative to starchy foods.

That said, making the changes and getting informed is not easy. Safefood, for example found it difficult to get small enough scones for one of its portion size campaigns – though it’s mostly a matter of changing the baking tray. Foley-Nolan is critical of food labels that adhere to the strict letter of the law, but are expecting people to do higher maths to decipher information. “Most people are not willing or able to do that sum on the hoof.”

Ray McCabe, who has been running McCabe’s Deli on the corner of Tara Street and Townsend Street in Dublin city centre for the past 15 years is testing the demand for smaller portions by offering smaller portion cakes with coffees and teas for just 30 cents extra during November.

He knows all too well people like to have something in the morning with their coffee. “We are delighted to have a new offering when people don’t want a big portion.”

He agrees that portion sizes have increased, though he acknowledges some prefer smaller versions. So he has tipsy cake; chocolate brownies and millionaire’s cake in the form of “just a nibble with your coffee”. Smaller, sweet and satisfying – that comes with less guilt and less calories.

Safefood Advice on portions:

Tips to reduce your portion sizes

Eating an extra 100 calories a day can lead to weight gain of 4.5kg (10lb) a year. Watching your portion sizes is a great way to prevent this. Whether you are eating in, eating out or food shopping.

Eating in

- Eat slowly;

- Use a smaller plate;

- Fill half of your dinner plate with vegetables or salad;

- Instead of eating from a large packet, serve a single portion into a bowl;

- Serve food on individual plates to avoid second helpings;

- Freeze or chill left-overs right away so you are not tempted to go back for more;

- Avoid eating while watching TV as it’s easy to overeat when you are distracted;

- If you enjoy a high calorie snack, have the on-pack serving size (e.g. one scoop of ice cream);

- Alcohol contributes to calorie intake. If you enjoy an occasional glass of wine or beer have a small one rather than a large one, and be careful with your measures at home.

Eating out

- If you order a high calorie food such as pizza or chips, order a small size;

- Order a half portion, have a starter as your main meal or split a dessert with a friend;

- Forget what your mother said. You don’t have to finish your plate. Ask for a “doggy bag” and take your leftovers home.

Food shopping

- Don’t buy the foods you tend to overeat;

- Make a list so you only buy what’s needed;

- Check the number of portions in pre-packaged foods - a pack may contain more than one portion;

- If you are buying treat foods buy snack sizes and only have one;

- Buy single portions “on the go” so you won’t be tempted by bigger pack sizes.

Children are smaller and don’t need adult-sized portions on their plates. Children and teenagers should be encouraged to try everything on their plate but be sure to let them decide when they have had enough - never force them to finish everything on their plate.

Recent research shows one in three people say they find it difficult to manage portion sizes.

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