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America and the great portion distortion

I recently got back from a very quick trip to the US. I decided last minute to fly over for a conference focusing on weight management; and so on a whim, booked flights and accommodation, and spent a total of 4 days in St Louis, Missouri – the “Gateway to the West”. What an experience! The conference was incredible but more importantly the people were lovely, very helpful and tolerant of my Aussie accent.

The Americans are currently leading the global trend for obesity and an overweight population. We are not too far behind, but I truly think that some major changes will be needed in the US food supply before they will remove themselves as leaders’ on the obesity ladder. Although I was only in the States for 4 days, I found at least three very good reasons to be proud to be Australian.

We think Aussies have portion distortion – the Americans have supersizing out of control!

It’s the morning of the first day of the conference, so as I walk the very chilli streets of St Louis (think -2°C) I stopped off at a Starbucks for a warming coffee. I ordered my usual small skinny cappuccino with extra froth, but what I ended up with was a coffee, literally 50% bigger than a small I would have got at home, with a massive swirl of whipped cream, chocolate syrup and then powder chocolate on top. My morning coffee was looking more like a dessert than a pick me up.

I was quick to discover that coffee was not the only food or beverage that seemed excessively large. Ordering a tuna salad sandwich will deliver you about an inch of tuna mayonnaise mix, two slices of tomato and a lettuce leaf between two slices of bread that would be about the same size as my head. On top of this, most American food outlets serve their dishes with a side. I had no idea what this meant so I was given the standard options which turned out to be a packet of potato chips or a double choc chip cookie similar in size to a slice of bread.
In the evening I decided to head to the Hard Rock Café (when in the US do as the Americans do). I ordered the fajitas and ended up with about 500g of beautifully cooked beef, 3 ice cream scoops each of sour cream and guacamole, about 2 cups of cheese and some salsa all to go with the four massive tortillas provided.  All of this was just for one person! Talk about value for money, but boy, that is a LOT of food!
Flavour overload!

It may not surprise you, but as a Dietitian I am partial to a salad or a massive plate of vegetables every now and then. After having spent my entire career to date involved in the food industry, I am totally aware of the impact that a little salt, sugar and/or fat can have on a meal. The Americans seemed to have taken the addition of flavour to whole new level! I purchased a hot dog (I was at the basketball) and I ended up with a bread roll with a salty frankfurter, mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup (tomato sauce) and cheese aka a bucket load of salt on a roll.
The same goes for sweets. Now I’ll be honest, I have an incredibly sweet tooth, but even I was beaten by the American sweet offering. The local St Louis fudge shop sells fudge by the pound (that’s about 450g). Each pound is served with just one spoon as that is their definition of a serve. I simply couldn’t walk past the fudge shop without picking up one of their combination pieces. It contained candied pecans (pecans that have been fried in caramel), caramel fudge all topped off with a milk chocolate fudge sauce. I purchased my pound and took my single spoon. This combination sounds like my dream come true! My love of caramel and milk chocolate is legendary. Yet the amount of sugar, salt and fat in the combination had me slowing after just two bites. After five bites I was done! To eat an entire pound of that fudge would take some serious training, which obviously all the other patrons that shopped there had already done!

Even basic breakfast items didn’t get out of the sugar, salt and/or fat overload. Their version of muesli aka granola is incredibly sweet. The all-American bagels are generally served with sweetened cream cheese and jam or sweetened butter and then peanut butter on top. As much as breakfast is a really important start to the day, with that amount of sugar, fat and salt being added to the meal, I’m not sure that it is the best possible start to anyone’s day.

All you can drink soda…

I’ve never really been into soft drinks as I’d rather eat my calories than drink them, but in saying that, the occasional diet cola with my lunch is never turned away. One thing that really amazed me whilst in the states was that if you were to purchase a soft drink, most of the food outlets would hand you a massive takeaway glass and then point to a free standing machine where you could pick and choose your soft drink to your heart’s content.  If you were up for the challenge, you were more than welcome to go back to the soft drink machine and fill your glass as often as you liked at no extra cost. From what I observed, most patrons went back at least once and as the small glass was well over 500ml, that’s at least 1L of soft drink that is being consumed at least once a day.

As good as the US food scene may sound; it left me feeling quite sad. The cost of health care related to obesity in the US is in the billions of dollars each year. The government, health insurance companies and everyone in-between seems to be really trying to make a difference, yet walk into any food outlet and you are met with servings and options that are only fuelling the obesity epidemic. As a Dietitian working in America, you would have a pretty big job ahead of you.

So in hindsight, I’ve realised that we really should appreciate some aspects of the Australian food supply. Our portions are big but certainly not anywhere near as out of control as the US portions. We still enjoy the taste of fruit and vegetables and are happy to consume a salad as a main meal without thinking twice about it and we have to pay for each glass, bottle or can of drink you choose to consume.
The grass is definitely green in this continent.

POSTED BY: Georgie Moore