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Portion Size and Sustainability
by James Mackinnon
NOVEMBER 11, 2007 - Alisa and I are currently on tour in Miami (where avocadoes and star fruit and citrus are in season…), so I haven’t had time to really research the details of this, but after almost two weeks in the United States, I just have to say I am absolutely overwhelmed by the portion size of restaurant meals - and I’ve started wondering how significant the consequences are in terms of sustainability.

America, your meal sizes are incredible. Not in every case, of course, but as a general rule. I see appetizers that offer easily enough food for a full meal, and full meals that are so large that just looking at them and knowing how much of the food will go to waste has ruined my appetite. I’m not going to tut-tut at people for eating all that food, because my own psychology is just like so many other people’s: put it on my plate, and I will try to eat it. (When I was a kid, my grandpa used to give me a dime if I cleared my plate…these days, he’d probably give me a dollar not to.) Also, the body adapts. With each day that I spend on the road, the portions that once seemed enormous to my Canadian eyes begin to seem adequate, or even small.

Plenty of research shows that portion size in the U.S. (and in Canada as well, though not to the same extremes) has increased dramatically over the past 50 years, at a cost to our health. I haven’t stumbled on any studies that look at the ecological costs, however, and these must be high. As I’ve written in past blogs, local-focused research is beginning to question the idea that a purely plant-based diet is always the most sustainable, but none of that research suggests that more than small portions of meat and fish make ecological sense (or do us any good, health-wise). So what am I to make of a cassoulet - traditionally a bean-centred stew - that I was served in New York that had five different kinds of ethically produced, small-farm meat, and all in portion sizes that at least doubled my protein needs for a single meal (and then there were the beans). All told, then, I estimate the dish had at least 12 times the protein that my body requires from a meal. I finished less than half of it.

If we really want to be serious about sustainable eating, and if we really care to see the animals that we eat living and dying on ethically acceptable terms, we’re going to need to eat not only more locally and more consciously, we’re also going to need to eat less. As with the shift so many people are making to local food, when we do make a change to eating less food, I suspect we’ll find ourselves feeling better than ever.

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