Getting Used to American Portions Again

So now that I have been back in the US for a couple days, I already have to re-adjust to American portion sizes again. There’s a joke in Japanese about amerika saizu meaning “American size” and now that I realize how true this phrase is.

We ate Friday night at a Japanese restaurant here in Seattle and I ordered ramen. Halfway through the meal I was already full and it was hard to finish the meal. To be honest, I had eaten some appetizers before, but at the same restaurant, I remember finishing the same meal (plus appetizers) and still being hungry and that was before I went to Japan.

This kind of thing happens every time I go to Japan: at first, I am hungry all the time because the portions are so small (as shown here in a recent visit to the KFC in Shibuya Ward in Tokyo):

KFC in Japan

…but then my body adjusts to it, and I find the meals more satisfying. My stomach even gets smaller. But then when I get back to the US, the portion sizes are too big, and I have trouble finishing. Then after a few weeks, I adjust to them again and my stomach gets bigger.

A friend I met in Japan told me that when he moved there, he lost about 10 kilograms after the first few months, but adjusted just fine. This friend is from Europe, not in the US, and in my experience living in Ireland, portions sizes are a little smaller than the US, though not quite as small as Japan. So, if he can adjust to smaller portion sizes and lose weight, imagine how much I would lose if I could adjust.

The problem with obesity in the US is simple: culturally, the portion sizes are TOO GODDAMN BIG. But it’s a cultural phenomenon, so it’s hard to notice it until you live somewhere else.

But it wasn’t always this way. In our grandparents’ generation, they ate the same food we did, but just smaller portions of it. What’s considered “small” now was normal then, or even generous. Gradually we’ve become adjusted to bigger and bigger portions. To accommodate this, the food quality suffered as portions increased. That’s why American food tastes like crap, while the portion sizes are so big. And because the portion sizes are so big, your stomach stretches and gets used to it, so when you do eat smaller portions, you feel hungry even though you had enough calories and nutrition.

I don’t want to live like this anymore. Knowing what I know now, I cant believe I ate the amount of food I did before. It was disgusting. It’s not even necessary! If you’re 40 pounds overweight like I am,1 you don’t have to live like this.

While staying in Japan for the past few weeks, I ate the same food (more or less) that I did in the US, but it tasted better and was much more satisfying, even though I ate less. But now that I am back in the US, it’s hard to avoid large portions, because even healthy food is served that way.

Instead, we as Americans have to make a collective effort with our wallets, our spending habits, and our eating habits to demand smaller portions, and better quality food. Business responds to demand (or rather the Law of Supply and Demand), so if you change your habits, they will change theirs’ and the culture changes as a result.

As for me:

  • I will never order anything bigger than a “tall” coffee. Grande is called “big” for a reason, it’s really big.
  • Better yet, I am gradually trying to phase out coffee altogether for tea. More on that in a later post. Those espresso drinks are full of calories, and I don’t like black coffee very much (nor does it have the health benefits of tea anyway).
  • If your restaurant meal is big enough to have leftovers to take home, it’s too big. I will be ordering smaller meals at restaurants. If need be, just eat appetizers.
  • I will eat one slice of toast, not two for breakfast.
  • One cup of cooked rice at home is enough, not 2 or 3.

As I said, I really don’t want to go back to old eating habits anymore. I am tired of it, and it’s bad for my body anyway, so I really want to maintain the portion sizes I adapted to in Japan as much as possible here.

1 40 pounds overweight is probably the new “normal” in American society. That’s really depressing when you think about it. Just because being fat is “normal” doesn’t mean it’s healthy, or even attractive to look at. Sorry, but it’s true.

About Doug 陀愚

A Buddhist, Father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.
This entry was posted in Cooking, Health, Japan, Travel and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Getting Used to American Portions Again

  1. colee112 says:

    I’m australian and recently travelling to america, I found eatting a bit challenging to tell you the truth. At the movies, your smallest coke was about a third bigger than our large coke. Meals at restaurents were never half finished. I am a small girl but travelling through Europe and Asia, I could finish my meals, no chance in the states. I learnt very quickly, to never order anything large, unless I wanted to feed a small african nation.

  2. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Ha ha ha, amen sister. I know exactly what you mean. In Japan they had “big” burgers but they are about the same size (if not) smaller than what you get in McD’s normally.

  3. Kendall says:

    I’ve certainly been trying to get my portion sizes down. I very rarely eat out, but even at home, it’s hard to get the right size. I try to get a bit of variety in my meals as well (read balanced) and end up with a lot of food, even if I’m going for the smallest of each item. I always feel better when I’m able to manage smaller portions so there’s definitely some motivation to do so. I’m thinking of making my sandwiches with one slice of bread instead of two, especially when I have larger loafs.

    Wish I had the experience of eating in other countries. It would be interesting to see how different everything is, including fast food chains. I look forward to your tea over coffee post. I use to drink a balance, but have been leaning more strongly to coffee lately and kind of wish I would get back to more tea.

  4. Rurousha says:

    The first time I could finish my food and the first time I felt like Oliver Twist (“Please, sir, I want some more”) was in Japan. My birth country, South Africa, also serves enormous portions.

    There is only one food that should never be enjoyed parsimoniously: chocolate! ;)

  5. El_D says:

    And yet Japan is one of the only places where the Mega Mac was a success for McDonalds!

  6. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Kendall,

    It’s hard to maintain things by oneself, so hopefully you might find some others to get support from, or inspiration from. Great job in any case. I’m holding off tea/coffee post just to make sure I actually stick with it long enough in the US. ;)

  7. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Rurosha,

    I really should go to South Africa one of these days. I’d be curious to see how South Africa portions compare with the US. I’d be surprised to see if Coke is served in giant cups as it is in the US. :)

    P.S. Chocolate is one of thsoe things I am trying to cut down on….just a bit. ;)

  8. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi El_D,

    I updated your comment and put a Wikipedia link to “Mega Mac” in there. I honestly had never heard of it, but the fact that it succeeded so well in Japan is pretty ironic and amusing! :) Also, I did eat at McD’s and their chicken nuggets were really good. They actually tasted like real, baked chicken, unlike whatever they make in the US. The mustard sauce was really good too (the ranch sauce not so much… That’s the only thing I guess that the US still makes well).

  9. graham ranft says:

    And while you are doing this suggest you reduce salt intake..This is good for heart
    and will stop your body from soaking up and retaining lots of fluid. Start checking
    sodium content on packaged foods..It will surprise you. Respectfully Graham

  10. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Graham and welcome. Thanks for the helpful advice!

  11. cocomino says:

    Haha. The burger in Japan is very small compared to your hands.
    As for me, the size is enough to get full

  12. Doug 陀愚 says:

    At first I wasn’t full, but after a few weeks I got used to it. The burgers are small but very good.

  13. Rurousha says:

    South African portions aren’t quite as big as American portions, but they’re hefty enough. The biggest problem with the (middle-class) SA diet is red meat, red meat, red meat and more red meat. Also red wine. But we do have very nice red wine. ^^

    PS: If you ever go to SA, you should visit the Ixopo Buddhist Retreat Centre in KwaZulu-Natal. Here:

  14. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Yeah, that was my experience in Europe as well. I briefly tried vegetarianism there, and it was hard enough in Ireland, but impossible almost in France/Luxembourg and other continental places. :p

    Thanks for the suggestion of Buddhist centers in South Africa. Somehow the idea of “Zulu” and “Buddhism” really sounds cool. :)

  15. Xavier Paolo Josh mandreza says:

    Hi doug!

    I got to agree with you that medically speaking obesity is unhealthy being overweight myself but we should really be careful about how we generalise fat people overall else it ends up being another sort of discrimination. Fat people has it’s beauties too and as far as I am concerned being who you are – being yourself is the best beauty you could ever be.

    But still, you’re right. It doesn’t hurt trimming down to live longer. Such is my resolve.

  16. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Xavier,

    Excellent point and appreciate the feedback. It’s true that bigger people are attractive too. I was actually was debating on an update post to help balance this one but haven’t started yet.

    The fact there are so many big people now more than before and that diabetes and heart problems though isn’t something that can be dismissed by saying “big is beautiful too”. Most people in the US simply eat too much I believe, and it’s a symptom of what our culture has become.

  17. Ender says:

    Try places that will allow you to split orders. Red Robbin allows my hubby and me to split a fish and chips order,and it comes out to 2 pieces of fish each. That’s great because fried food doesn’t make good leftovers. I figure if I control portions, I can lose weight without having to give up anything I like.
    My other suggestion is to eat slowly. Give your stomach a chance to say “I’m full” before you eat too much. A Japanese diet adage suggest that you eat until you are 80% full.

  18. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Ender, great suggestion about splitting orders. I had no idea we could do that.

    Yup I know about the 80% rule. :-)

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