Making Smarter And Smaller Food Choices

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - April 07, 2010
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Friends of mine are incensed at a bill running through the Legislature to ban the serving of ice cream in schools.

“How dare the government try to tell us what to eat,” says one prominent chef. “What, they think we can’t make our own decisions about food?”

Well, now that you mention it ...

Personally, I’m more shocked that most people don’t know the difference between “good” food and junk food than I am that the government is thinking of intervening. And, to be honest, I’m in favor of any measures to improve the country’s eating habits, particularly when it comes to children.

Taken a good look at a public school cafeteria recently? Corn dogs, chicken patties, cinnamon rolls, meatballs and unidentifiable cheesy pastry things are not major players in a healthy, well-balanced diet. Some of the things our kids are eating barely make it into a food group.

But at least most school cafeterias have a reasonable grasp of portion sizes. Not so the rest of us.

There ought to be a reality show: America’s Largest Appetites. I can see it now. Contestants offer up their weekly food consumption to a panel of judges who score them based on mortality rates. You can only imagine the ratings as people tune in each week to gasp at the contents of other people’s refrigerators and marvel at the size of their dinner plates. Challenges might include identifying a correct portion size or trying to eat only half a restaurant serving at one sitting. Winners would be granted the ultimate prize: more time on the planet to enjoy life by learning how to eat less.

The problem is twofold: Most people don’t recognize a correct portion size, or if they do, they think its ridiculously small, and Americans are offered obscene amounts of food 24 hours a day. Drop in for a small soda at one of the numerous convenience stops around the island and your choices start at 22 ounces. “Super size” it, or go for a Big Gulp and you’re drinking 64 ounces of soda. At 750 calories, that’s nearly half the recommended intake for an adult for an entire day - in a drink!

We’ve become so used to seeing large portions in restaurants that we have somehow come to equate lots of food with good food. And we think that the more food we have piled on our plate, the better the restaurant (although I’ve always found it odd that the more you pay for a meal, the less food you’re likely to be given).

In New York City, war is being waged by the Department of Health against chain eateries. A recent law mandates calorific content of foods must be displayed next to the price. Restaurant menus and soft drinks are being targeted as we speak.

In most of the rest of the world, people are amazed at the way Americans consume food. Europeans - particularly the French, who have long been studied for their apparent ability to eat a high-fat diet without risk of heart attacks or obesity - eat a wide variety of fatty foods, but they eat them differently. They sit down at the end of the day and talk over long meals, they stop for tea or coffee in the middle of the afternoon to regroup and catch their breath, and they eat small portions. A study at the University of Pennsylvania found that in Paris, portions are on average 25 percent smaller than in the U.S., and in one dramatic statistic, researchers found Chinese food servings in some American restaurants to be a whopping 72 percent larger than in Paris.

The scariest thing in all of this is childhood obesity. With more than 67 percent of Americans over-weight or obese (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) it’s little wonder that childhood obesity is an escalating problem, bringing with it an increased incidence of diabetes and other associated illnesses. If we don’t get our eating under control, what hope is there for our kids?

Don’t want the government telling you how to eat? Then it’s time to start taking control on your own.

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