There are many factors that cause us, and our families, to think “bigger is better” with regard to portion size.
The first is that, until the development of modern refrigeration technology, food was often expensive and hard to come by. Even as recently as 20 years ago – before it was cheap enough to import and export produce by air – it was difficult and expensive to get fresh fruits and vegetables out of season. Sometimes it was even difficult and expensive to get them in season! Getting enough food to eat – any food – is still an issue in certain parts of the world.
Also, humans have traditionally been nomadic (hunter/gatherers, rancher/shepherders), agrarian, or a mixture of both (e.g., men hunt while women farm) – lifestyles which, until the advent of petrol-powered farm machinery – required significant expenditure of energy just to survive. Just as a water pump needs to be primed with water to be able to pump more water, we needed food to prime us to produce more food.
And, we need a certain amount of body fat for our bodies to be maintain reproductive health. (We see that today in the amenorrhea of some extreme female athletes, and of young women with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa.)
In short, food is associated with personal and racial survival, and with personal prosperity.
(Heck, our ancestors used to fight each other to get better hunting grounds, more fertile farmlands, better pastures… )
For generations, we’ve kept the same standards, which is why food is so plentiful today – and perversely, why so many of us are obese.
- Our farms morphed into factories, and we kept the same standards.
- Our factories became mechanized, and we kept the same standards.
- Our factories morphed into giant office parks where we are tethered to desks in cubicles too small to turn around in; our ranches morphed into stacked cages too small for force-fed animals to turn around in -- yet we still keep the same standards.
Food = prosperity.
Food = personal survival.
Food = personal ability to procreate.
Of course, the more food we had and consumed, the more prosperous we appeared, and the more likely we would be able to procreate.
And so we developed technology to provide us more and more and more food…
Class differences as an issue
Every time I see images of an economically-struggling minority woman purchasing beans, rice, and week-old vegetables, I am reminded of a black-and-white documentary my junior high Social Studies class was shown, The Poor Pay More*.
The place: Harlem, New York City. The time: probably the late 1960’s. An elderly woman goes to shop at her local grocery store. The selection is poor; what fruits and vegetables there are, are rotting and/or moldy. The prices are 20-30% higher than a middle-class woman pays for the same foods, fresh, less than two miles away.
The issue? The poor woman cannot afford the extra money, or walk the extra two or three blocks, to take the subway to the store in the middle-class neighborhood.
Even today, in central New Jersey, when I walk through the local Latino supermarkets, the produce is often old or poorly kept. (At least the prices are comparable to those of the greengrocer three blocks down, and the other greengrocer two miles down the road.) The beef is much fattier than what I find in the mainstream supermarkets, and the large custom-butcher counter smells like decaying dead animals rather than like freshly-cut meat. And I think, “the poor pay more”.
Many of us have heard of “the Irish Potato Famine” – a crop disease spoiled several years’ potato crop in Ireland, causing widespread starvation among the Irish poor. The fallacy we are fed is that the Irish were dependent on potatoes because it was their cultural preference, despite having been taught otherwise (by their presumedly more civilized and more educated neighbors, the English). The truth is that potatoes were all that the poor Irish were allowed to retain for their own diets, being by then the tenant farmers of rich, mostly-English, landlords. Serfs, if you will, in all but name. In short, their food selections were limited because of their social class.
Many of us know the struggle of stretching beans, rice, and off-cuts of meat because we, or our parents, could not afford enough volume to satisfy our families if we were to purchase anything else. After years of knowing only the diet of poverty, we may have never learned the pleasure of a fresh green salad; after years of overcooked, smelly, canned broccoli, we can’t picture the bright green crispness of the freshly-steamed vegetable. Or, we may have forgotten.
In short, we have been handcuffed by economics, mobility, and social class.
*Near as I can find, The Poor Pay More was produced by Morton Silverstein for the National Educational Television network some time between 1963 and 1972. Larry Solomon may have been the filmmaker. IMDB.com does not have any information on this film.
Changing food codes
Diversity of diet is not the only thing that changes as one moves up and down the socioeconomic ladder. Even within a single food class, or a single food item, class can be indicated by freshness, selectivity within the food organism, and labor-intensiveness of preparation. This is why the eye of the fish is considered a delicacy by some Asians, why certain organ meats were reserved for the hunter who killed the animal, or for the leader of the social group, and why many of us crave white flour and refined sugar.
White flour has long been prized because it rises faster and further than whole-grain flour, and because it is easier to digest the starch when it is not accompanied by the seed cover, or bran. Traditionally, it took much more effort to polish off the bran and remove the germ from a grain than to mill it whole. Until modern commercial milling came of age, white flour was a luxury product – a sign of economic prosperity. Now, it is the cheapest flour on the market.
One factor in the higher production and availability of refined flours has been the high demand for what was once a luxury product. Another is shelf stability. Because whole-grain flours retain both the natural oils in the germ, they can go rancid if left to linger on the shelves for extended periods of time.
Between the higher demand for refined grains, their longer shelf lives, and the economies of scale, it has become less profitable for mills and bakeries to produce whole-grain flours and bakery products. This leads to higher prices for whole-grain products when they are available.
Whole grains are now the luxury item.
Leaner meats – which are considered to be cheaper grades – are now being upsold (e.g., “certified Angus”) as the product of premium animals. Lean meats are now the luxury item.
Our cultural food codes are turning upside down.
Quality, not quantity
Portion sizes of most foods are a lot smaller than we are used to thinking of them. Without the need to expend thousands of calories a day rounding up cattle or hoeing the “back forty”, our bodies can survive and thrive on less food than our grandparents needed. If we pay attention to portion size, we can purchase higher quality foods without expanding the food budget – in other words, we can eat as if we were more affluent than we are. When we eat affluently, we eat healthily and sufficiently. We feed our minds, our bodies, and our sense of self-worth.
Value yourself enough eat affluently.