It's tempting to read a silver lining into the otherwise dreary news that food prices are skyrocketing and appear on pace to post their largest annual increase since 1980.
Record high oil prices sent bicycle sales up 24 percent and gas-guzzling SUV sales down 35 percent in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. High electric bills have prompted more than one of us to don a sweater rather than crank the heat. And increased cigarette taxes are credited with reducing teen smoking, according to at least one anti-tobacco group.
Sometimes, in other words, we need our wallets to be our willpower. So will rising food costs be the answer to our nation's notorious portion control issues?
No way, says renowned eating behavior researcher Brian Wansink, author of "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think" (Bantam). Affordability isn't what's driving us to overeat, he contends.
"The three biggest drivers that mess us up are: how big our portions are, how frequently we eat and what we eat," he says.
And none of those is likely to change significantly because of a spike in food prices.
"We spend about a fourth as much of our income on food as we did in 1960," say Wansink. "So it's no longer, 'Do I really want to sacrifice my entire allowance for a candy bar?' Now it's 'What else do I want too?'"
Even as the amount of money we spend on food has shrank, our portions have grown. Which speaks to another factor in our portion wars — the desire to save a buck.
"It's a long-standing principle in America that we're a land of plenty and we value bigness," says sociologist Barry Glassner, author of "The Gospel of Food: Why We Should Stop Worrying and Enjoy What We Eat" (Harper Perennial). "That's coupled with a very common American interpretation of what counts as value. Getting more for less is something that we tend to think is a good thing."
How else to explain the 44-ounce soda? No one's really that thirsty. But when the convenience store prices all fountain drinks at $0.79, what kind of sucker is going to reach for the smallest cup?
Our reasons for overeating are as plentiful and varied as the folks doing the overeating. (And with a national obesity rate at around 34 percent, that's plenty of us.) But one commonality? A misunderstanding of how much food we actually need.
"If you look at the research, people grossly overestimate how much protein they need each day in order to grow. Same with grain and other categories," Wansink says. "We aren't really clear on the notion of normal servings and normal-size meals. We used to think a hamburger and small fry would fill us up. Now we believe we need a double cheeseburger, and anything less isn't going to do."
That double cheeseburger also takes a lot less effort to procure than it did a couple generations ago. So does a pizza. Or two. Frozen food, fast food and packaged food are all staples of modern life, but they allow us to scarf down massive portions without a lick of food prep.
Food also satisfies needs beyond just the need to quiet a grumbling stomach, of course.
"Our 'needs' for food go way beyond a strictly nutritional sense," says Glassner. "We have a lot of social aspects and psychological aspects at play, so to pretend it's just a simple nutritional issue is naive at best.
"Do I need a dessert, from a nutritional sense? No," he continues. "Do I need a dessert because it's the polite thing to have one when I'm a guest and people are offering it? Yeah, I need it. And I can think of a lot of examples like that."
So what can be done to reign it in?
Glorifying the eating habits of days past won't actually whip us into shape any more than rising food prices will.
"The secret to mindless eating is not mindful eating," Wansink says. "There are 99 ways to lose weight if you want to, but the majority of people are a little too preoccupied to ask, 'How many grams of protein do I really need?' 'Am I really full or am I just satisfied?' We're not going to re-engineer 50 years of life."
We can, he says, counteract some of the changes.
"Since 1960, the average size of dinnerware has increased 11 percent," he says. "That almost doubles the surface area. A 4-ounce serving of pasta looks like plenty on a 10-inch plate. On a 12-inch plate it doesn't even look like an appetizer's worth."
Use smaller plates and bowls, he says. Pack leftovers in smaller Tupperware. Drink from smaller cups.
Of course, there's still that pesky, ingrained desire for a deal that drives us to buy more and eat more than we truly should. For that, Glassner says, we have to remember to consider the messenger.
"We're getting messages about what to eat and how often to eat from so many sources," Glassner says. "Being more attentive to who's sending us the message and why will go a long way. If it's coming from someone trying to sell us something — whether they're selling us ice cream or a diet plan — we need to be critical and assess the quality of what they're selling."
Regardless of the perceived value.
A little less of this, a little more of that
In her 2004 "non-diet diet book," "French Women Don't Get Fat" (Vintage), Mireille Guiliano made a name (and a fortune) for herself explaining how French women can drown themselves in butter and wine and still look like, well, French women. She has since launched a blog and released a cookbook ("The French Women Don't Get Fat Cookbook") and recently shared with us her thoughts on portion control and food taboos.
Q: What should we be focusing on when making our food choices?
A: Less is more. Good, fresh, seasonal ingredients. More veggies and fruit, less greasy/fatty/fried stuff and no aversion to bread, potatoes and other foods that are actually good for you — in small portions. Diversity and color is also vital to our way of eating.
Q: What are some foods that have been unfairly turned into taboos?
So many, from oysters (amazingly good for you and so tasty) to champagne (also good in moderation with minerals and much more in it), real yogurt, eggs, calf's liver, bony fish, lots of raw fish, crustaceans, artichokes, offals, rabbit, butter.
Q: And is the reasoning that they are whole, unprocessed foods?
A: Yes, and in many cases tastier and healthier.
Q: Are there foods we would be well-served to cut out completely, or is it more a matter of controlling our portion sizes?
A: Both. What I see as I travel around the country is both the amount of same food that people eat — usually pizza, hamburgers, fries, pasta. I can't tell you how many young people I've met who don't eat veggies and rarely fruit except an unripe banana gulped down in five seconds. And, of course, too much sweet stuff, particularly the latest horrible cupcake crave, which wreaks havoc on one's metabolism. The idea is not to ban these foods once and for all, but if you must have them do it as an indulgence occasionally and for heaven's sake sit down and eat slowly at the table.