Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Portion sizes and a Nation of Fatties

First of all let me preface this by saying I take responsibility for my weight. You don’t get to be nearly 300 lbs without consistently overeating primarily unhealthy foods. There is no covering up that fact, and the reality is that I put each and every one of those fat and sugar-laden calories in my body myself. These were poor decisions that were my fault. I get that.

However this post is a huge vent about environmental factors that contribute to a culture of overeating and obesity. Here is a small anecdote to illustrate. I am currently at the airport and was starting to get hungry. I decided to get a snack. Obviously this is a minefield if you’re not careful in an airport or gas station. Fortunately they did not have any Combos which are historically one of my favorite junk foods when traveling. As I was checking over the different options, of course I was looking over the nutritional information for each of the choices I considered. This is where the vent comes in.

One of the things I noticed was a huge bag of Mini Oreos. There were similarly sized bags of other Nabisco products (Chips Ahoy, Cheez Its, etc.). This bag was labeled a “Snak Pak”. The Snak Pack in question had 8 130 calorie servings. Now seriously, let’s dissect this. I think spending 130 calories on a snack is reasonable. However, there is absolutely no way that you can have eight servings and consider it a snack. I think that to expect consumers to eat 1/8th of the bag is completely unreasonable – especially if the entire bag is labeled as a snack (and, at least to me, the implication is that it was a single snack, not eight different snacks). On the other hand suppose you ate the whole thing. That would be 1040 calories!!! Now a 1000+ calorie snack is just completely unreasonable – at that point it becomes a meal, and eating a meal consisting only of Mini Oreos is just a bad idea. Let’s get real: calling this bag of Oreos a Snak Pak is bad naming at best and very deceptive at worst (tricking people to think that 1000+ calories is actually a snack vs. enough calories to be a large to extra large meal). Also, what's with having the Oreos be mini? I feel like it is another deceptive step by food manufacturers, but maybe I am being a conspiracy theorist. I am not sure.

Though I agree consumers should ultimately be responsible for making healthy choices for themselves, I am super-annoyed that we package so much food together and try to pass it off as a single serving. More accurately, for items that are marketed as single-serving type packages, I think food manufacturers should be honest and put the calories that are contained in the entire package. Own up to the fact that your bag of Oreos has 1040 calories and probably exceeds the daily recommendation for fat and saturated fat.

The size of food passed off as a single package just keeps increasing. The candy bars for sale are twice the size of those I remember as a kid. The only Twix bars for sale, for example, contained 4 Twix-es vs. only 2 like I remember. This is not healthy for us and probably not really sustainable either.

I don’t know the answer to this one. Would it be a policy solution? (e.g., require nutritional labeling to contain the calories for the whole package if it is labeled as a snack.) I’m not sure if that’s a great idea, but it could drive changes toward more realistic sizes just like including TransFat on labels incentivized food manufacturers to get rid of partially hydrogenated oils in their food. I don’t think consumers want to advocate for smaller, more realistic package sizes for the most part, especially if the cost would remain the same – but I don’t think continuing to increase serving/package sizes is wise or sustainable. Obesity is about to overtake smoking as the #1 preventable cause of death. That is ridiculous. (Again, I am one of the obese folks and I take responsibility for my actions. I am just pointing out the huge societal impacts that obesity has in America and increasingly in the rest of world).

In case you are curious, what I ultimately decided to do was to get a bag of cashews. There were 3 servings with 170 calories each. That is decidedly a very large “snack”, but believe it or not was one of the better choices. The best choice was probably almonds, but I eat those all the time…but usually 12 nuts at a time, not in a huge bag.

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