Growing up in Thomasville, North Carolina, during the Great Depression, Lewis Clark Jr., recalled his first experience with food serving sizes.
“There were six of us in the family, and at dinner we would pass a bowl of potatoes, a bowl of vegetables and a plate of meat, if we had meat – and everyone took one spoonful or one piece and passed the bowl or the plate to the next person,” said Clark, who was born in 1914. “And one of everything was all you got because there was hardly ever anything left for a second go-round.”
While Clark added that his family “could have stood to eat more if we had had it during that time,” the opposite is now true for most Americans. Overweight, overeating and obesity are more common among Americans than at any other time in history.
While many factors, such as physical inactivity, already-prepared food and the rise of fast food, in the past 60 years keep contributing to these health concerns, at their roots is a general disregard of serving sizes in almost every food category.
“Most people pay sporadic attention to serving sizes,” said Dr. Cici Carter, owner of FreshMed, LLC, in Charleston. “We commonly sit down with a bag or box of food and eat until we’re content – which is likely beyond a true serving size.”
She added that larger portion sizes have only enabled Americans to simply eat as much as they like.
“That, coupled with a ‘clean your plate’ mentality of those living in previous generations when food was scarce, has certainly contributed to obesity,” Dr. Carter said. “Many of us have lost the ability to eat ‘intuitively’ and thus continue to overeat or drastically undereat for what our body may need.”
But exactly what kinds of food does our body need? And, depending on our age, gender, size and activity level, how much should we have?
The answers go back to 1943 during World War II, with the creation of the original seven food groups by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The food groups were intended to help Americans maintain nutritional standards under wartime food rationing. But, over the next 50 years, eating habits and portions kept changing and Americans began putting on weight.
So in 1993, after re-creating the seven food groups into the food pyramid, the USDA introduced serving sizes to help Americans regain control of their weight. But in the last 30 years, serving sizes have proven to have had almost no value as to how Americans eat – let alone what they eat.
For example, consider this comparison of the following three guidelines:
1943 – THE ORIGINAL SEVEN FOOD GROUPS
- Green and yellow vegetables;
- Oranges, tomatoes and grapefruit;
- Potatoes and other vegetables and fruits;
- Milk and milk products;
- Meat, poultry fish or eggs;
- Bread, flour and cereals;
- Butter and fortified margarine.
While the 1943 guide came with no daily serving sizes or age delineations, it encouraged people to “eat some food from each group every day.”
1993 – THE FOOD PYRAMID
- Fats, oils and sweets: use sparingly;
- Milk, yogurt and cheese group – two to three servings;
- Meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs and nuts group – two to three servings;
- Vegetable group – three to five servings;
- Fruit group – two to four servings;
- Bread, cereal, rice and pasta group.
The 1993 guide omitted potatoes, leaving one less food group than in 1943.
2011 – MyPlate – 2,000 CALORIES A DAY FOR AGES 14+
- Fruits: two cups;
- Vegetables: two-and-a-half cups;
- Grains: six ounces;
- Proteins: five-and-a-half ounces;
- Dairy: three cups.
The MyPlate guide also omitted potatoes plus butter and fortified margarine, thereby leaving one less food group than in 1993 and two less than in 1943.
The USDA guides are not the only choices. The Harvard School of Public Health launched its own nutrition guidelines in 2011 with the scientifically-based Healthy Eating Plate – some of which agrees with MyPlate, and some of which agrees with the original seven food groups.
So with all these guidelines from the past 80 years, why aren’t the majority of Americans slim and trim?
When asked this question, Clark, who maintained his 145-pound weight on a 5-foot, 9-inch frame from the 1930s to the 1990s, simply said, “People eat too much.”
When asked why he didn’t eat too much now that he could, he said, “I guess I got used to eating only so much when I was young.”
And even though Clark’s habit came under extreme circumstances, it lowered his chances of developing heart disease, diabetes, stroke, certain cancers and other forms of chronic illness that are now a global epidemic.
The World Health Organization reported in 2021 that at least 2.8 million people die each year as a result of being overweight or obese. And between 1975 and 2016, the number of school-age children and adolescents with obesity increased from 11 million to 124 million, making it one of the most serious global public health challenges of the 21st century and affecting every country in the world.
Dr. Carter said reversing the trend at this stage will mean masses of people choosing to alter their eating habits in the face of ready-made food.
“There has been a shift in what is available in terms of healthier prepared meals with appropriate portion sizes,” she said. “But it will take a while for us to relearn what’s actually appropriate.”
To this end, she offered this advice:
- Use a salad plate instead of a dinner plate to keep food amounts appropriate.
- Fill half the salad plate with vegetables and some fruit, leaving smaller areas for protein – 4 ounces – and grains.
- Eat the vegetables first, as they “tend to have more fiber, leading to satiety.”
- At parties where there are a lot of food options, take a first pass to see the offerings, then a second pass with a salad plate and choose the healthier options available.
“And then stop,” Dr. Carter said. “When we’re distracted by conversation, we often don’t realize what or how much we’re eating. And if you do want to have more education on serving sizes, ask your provider or make an appointment with a registered dietitian. There may even be offerings for free classes to give you the basics that may be covered by insurance or even through your work.”
By L. C. Leach III