Duendecitos (Hobgoblins)

The Misleading Fast Food Boogeyman

We seem to need the boogeyman. That little hobgoblin who gets the blame for whatever ails us – especially for obesity. So naturally, we have a long list of bad guys to blame for obesity. Fast food has long been one of them. But a new study of portion sizes in the BMJ suggests that fast food is hardly the worst offender in the restaurant industry.

In a survey of 223 restaurant meals in six countries, Susan Roberts and colleagues found that portions were consistently larger in full service restaurants. In fact, their analysis of variance revealed that fast food meals tended to have a third fewer calories than full service meals.

Excessive Portions

Make no mistake. The customary portions in restaurants are excessive – all over the world. A single restaurant meal can easily supply all of the calories needed for a day. China is the only country where the researchers found a different story. Calorie counts per meal in China were about a third lower than the other five countries they studied – the U.S., Brazil, Finland, Ghana, and India.

Restaurant portions are an important factor, says Roberts:

Eating out is now common around the world. But it is important to keep in mind that it is easy to overeat when a large restaurant meal is likely to be only one of several meals and snacks consumed that day.

Easy Targets or Decoys?

A few years ago, Roland Sturm and AikoHattori found no impact whatsoever on obesity from banning new fast food restaurants in south LA. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But assumptions need testing. Villains are easy to fabricate. And now it looks like that fast food villain was a mere distraction. Part of a much bigger picture.

The deeper problem is the market pressure for ever larger portions in restaurants. Other research suggests that social norms might be a useful target. In any event, it’s difficult to imagine that restaurants will suddenly stop serving generous portions if that’s what their patrons expect.

It will take a broader effort to bring a change in norms and expectations. We can’t pin our hopes on false narratives about a boogeyman.

Click here for the study and here for more details from Tufts.

Duendecitos (Hobgoblins), etching by Francisco Goya / Wikimedia

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December 13, 2018

2 Responses to “The Misleading Fast Food Boogeyman”

  1. December 22, 2018 at 10:24 pm, Paul Ernsberger said:

    No account is made of leftovers. Many restaurants have most patrons leaving with takeout styrofoam. In the communal refrigerators of millennials, leftovers are the predominant species of food.

  2. December 23, 2018 at 4:59 am, Ted said:

    Good question, Paul. You may be interested in this.