The other day we had a friend over and we thought it would be nice to take him to a restaurant. The meal arrived and the serving was enormous and the food salted to the point you could barely taste anything else. The next day we all felt like zombies.
My daughter says the feeling is just like PMS, the memory of which is slowly fading in my mind. My mother says my aversion to restaurant food is a result of growing old but surely servings were never so big, or so salty.
These enormous portions and excessive saltiness is not atypical of food here, nor I would think, in any western country. In a US study (1) meals were bought from various restaurants around the country, covering a representative variety of cuisines. The take away meals were bought back to the lab and their calorie contents measured.
Now, while the US government recommends the average person eat 2000 kcal per day, according to calorie intake calculators, a 52 year old, 54.5kg(120lb) 160cm ( 5′ 3″) woman, i.e. me, who exercises three times a week should eat 1546kcal for maintenance, and, if you want to lose weight, that’s 1237kcal. Divide that by 3 and you get 515kcal per meal, or 412kcal if you want to lose weight.
The average calories in the meals were 1,205kcal and the average over three of the four most popular cuisines (American, Italian, and Chinese) had the highest mean energy, 1,495 kcal/meal. That means, at an average restaurant dinner, you are eating an entire days worth of calories. Hope you didn’t eat breakfast and lunch!
As the researchers themselves put it “We found what we were expecting, which is that portion sizes are obscene.”
So why not just eat a little bit and put the rest aside? There are a number of factors that make that difficult. One is that your mother told you to eat everything on your plate, and think of the children in India, or at least mine did. The other is you don’t want to be weird in front of friends and face the cross-examination over your left overs. You know the one. “Why aren’t you eating? But you’re so slim! You don’t need to lose weight. etc. etc.”
The main problem is just plain biology. We’re designed to eat when there’s food available, because who knows when there’ll be more? The researchers say
Just knowing that a big platter of beef tacos has a lot of calories won’t help if it’s steaming right in front of you, the authors contend. “People blame themselves and say they don’t have enough willpower,” Roberts says. “It has nothing to do with willpower and everything to do with biology.” When the tacos arrive at the table, you have an “overwhelming neurological response,” she says: blood glucose drops as a signal for hunger and stomach muscles relax to make room for the feast. “Our biology is designed to make us eat when there’s food there,” she says. “I don’t think anybody should feel bad that they get weak when there’s an excessive portion in front of them, because the problem is the excessive portion, not them.” (3)
And that brings us to the fourth problem; the modern inability to judge an appropriate portion size. As another group of researchers put it
…the challenge of getting consumers to [reduce portion sizes] is formidable given their chronic exposure to large portion sizes and distorted consumption norms and perceptions, together with consumer unwillingness to compromise on value for money, taste, and convenience. (2)
In other words, we have been surrounded by giant servings of food for so long that we no longer know what an appropriate serving size looks like. Where we used to feast a few times a year on birthdays and Christmas, we now feast every day.
But portion size doesn’t explain why we feel like zombies the day after a restaurant meal. I’m not sure why that is, but I blame it on salt.
The RDI for sodium in this country is 1600mg which is about 3/4tsp of salt. In the US it’s 1tsp of salt, or 2300mg of sodium. In New York, meals with more than the RDI of salt in them must be labelled with a salt shaker in a black triangle, but those are just the meals that contain an entire days worth of sodium. If a meal contains 2299mg of salt, you can eat it happily, oblivious to the health consequences.
Can you even imagine adding a tsp of salt to a meal, or, if cooking for the whole family, a tablespoon? 2300mg of sodium the same amount of salt as in 288 100g (4oz) bags of chips.
Salt increases the amount of protein in urine, which affects kidney function. High salt diets increase the rate of kidney function decline in people with existing kidney disease and in animals with artificially induced kidney disease, a low salt diet slows the progression of the disease. (4)
In fact, the zombie feeling is a lot like that flu like feeling you get after a massage, or post massage malaise. People like to tell themselves that’s the toxins being flushed out of their system but, in fact, it is a side effect of the damage to the muscles that results in proteins being released into the blood stream which impairs kidney function, so my theory is that post restaurant malaise is the effect of salt on my kidneys.
So what to do? Well I’ve added another rule to the list. Avoid restaurants! Unfortunately, there are social reasons for going out to restaurants, but unless the event involves a group too big to cater for myself, I’ll stay away.