The Curse of Portion Size

the kids' breakfast

David Wallerstein worked in a movie theater, where he pioneered the concepts of the giant popcorn tub and the enormous waxed tumbler of soda pop. In Episode 2 of BBC Two’s The Men Who Made Us Fat, Jacques Peretti conveys the astonishing news that McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc was anti-supersizing, but he hired Wallerstein anyhow, and a fast-food dynasty was born. Zoe Harcombe, who critiqued this TV show for her website, describes its portrayal of the story:

Wallerstein sat in a restaurant in Chicago and observed human behavior. He observed that consumers would tip the fries packet into their mouth, something he called “the salt slide” and presented this as evidence that people wanted more and yet would not go back for a second helping. (The deadly sin, greed, would prevent us — we did not want to seem greedy, even if we were).

For various reasons, including the cost of the cup or the fries packet, serving larger portions turned out to be economically viable for fast food chains. Incidentally, here’s a thought regarding the picture on this page. It’s all well and good to blame supersizing on American corporations, but it was at a British restaurant in Great Yarmouth that Peretti found “the kids’ breakfast,” so named because it weighs as much as a small child — at least nine pounds.

Them and their blarney

Somewhat sensitive to criticism, the industry tried a fancy new move — packaging two items together, as if the consumer would be sharing with a friend and not greedily eating both of the chocolate cupcakes with squiggles on top. In real life, people typically just consumed rather than shared, but it made a comfortable fiction that justified selling the larger servings of high-calorie, low-nutrition snacks.

Someone from a famous advertising agency is interviewed about selling candy, and Professor Philip James tells of his struggles in getting the British bureaucracy to worry about junk food ads that target children. In 2003, the same bureaucracy discouraged the chairman of a parliamentary committee from doing his job. David Hinchliffe recommended the end of supersizing, and the food industry ignored the recommendation. The industry said the same thing it always does, that people need to get more exercise. Relevant to that bit of wisdom, Harcombe notes that the TV journalist found a very interesting person to interview:

The work of Professor Terry Wilkin, from the Early Bird Diabetes study, Peninsula Medical School, suggests: “The assumption is that it is the inactivity that is the cause of the fatness. We have studied this very carefully and we cannot find this. What we can find is the reverse. That the fatness reduces physical activity.”

As it happens, Harcombe had also written about the EarlyBird study in one of her books, and so had quite a lot to say about it:

The conclusion was: “The total amount of physical activity done by primary school children does not depend on how much physical education is timetabled at school because children compensate out of school.”

The study was extended over a longer period of time… Again, the study found that, no matter how much scheduled activity the children were given, they were similarly active overall. The children who had been doing organised PE were doing little outside school. The ones who had less scheduled exercise were more likely to head out on their bike, or play football, after school.

The episode covers the by-now-familiar territory of supermarket promotions designed to sell more more more, and follows Peretti to buy a gigantic pastry from a dude who says, “I’m not a doctor, I’m a doughnut salesman.”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Men Who Made Us Fat,” Episode 2/3,
Source: “The men who made us fat – Episode 2,”, 06/21/12
Image by BBC2


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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
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Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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