Does Size Really Matter: A Sizeist Take on Food Portions and Simple Science
By SYAKIR RYLI
To understand the dilemma stated henceforth, you need to understand the writer: a small sized late twenties man with best friends who love food - like, love, love food.
Every meal appointment is a battle, especially dinner, dinners are the worst. While different cultures enjoy dinner at different timings, most range between 5 to 7 pm. In comparison, the Malay culture has no fixed societal norms to adhere to and practice a laissez-faire approach of “eating whenever hungry” which often result in late night snacking or supper at the local mama shop.
Coupled with friends who love, love food, this translates to late night zi char ritual with rice and sharing dishes that serve 3 additional pax more than there are seats at the table. But who can blame us really, our late night hunger is biological. Thanks to our natural circadian rhythm that governs our sleep cycle, our energy levels pummel around 3 to 4 pm, as our body prepares for the end of the day. Pushing back dinner time means our body hunger revs up our appetite further: the later dinner is, the more appetite you develop, a modern Sisyphus torture at play.
“What should we order?”
“Is everyone getting their own individual meal or should we share?”
“Do we get the $8 Kai-lan Vegetables with Oyster Sauce or the $10 one?”
The $5 vegetable dish serves for 2-4 pax. The $10 option serves 5-8 pax. I looked around the table, there were only 4 of us. Everyone was still mulling over their own individual meals.
“Let’s also get the $12 Sweet and Sour Fish to share around.”
“Just get the $10 Kai-lan lah. You know, just in case.”
Just in case, someone develops an immense love for the Chinese broccoli stir-fried at low heat in sesame oil and oyster sauce? Or just in case there is a shortage of Kai-lan tomorrow and this is the last bowl of the vegetable dish we would ever have? The mystery continues.
A classic case of decision fatigue that occurs late at night. Multiply such decision-making by a few dishes for the table, this scenario typically results in over-ordering too much food. But the truth is, over-ordering in itself is not the problem. It is causal to the very real problem of overeating. We know the studies by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine’s Center for Weight and Eating Disorders that warn of how food consumed late at night is more likely to store calories as fat rather than burn them as energy.
It was not just the number of dishes that we order. Food portions play a major part in the narrative of gluttony. While some fine dining options cater for small portions to extract every ounce of pleasure from every bite, the cheaper mama stall alternatives cater for a more frugal economy.
So how else would they compete? By increasing the food portion and portray a value-for-(less)-money, of course. One of my favourite memory of eating at a new place with my best friends include a conversation that goes like this:
“Is there rice?”
“No, but it really is worth it. I promise you. The food is good and they’re so generous with their portions!” Often time, it is true. The food was good but it was the portion that made it worth it. Imagine, an entire plate of 100% Australian Angus Beef, medium-rare served with barbecue sauce with a side of freshly fried fries at 8 pm on a cold, rainy alcove in Singapore. When written and pronounced slowly, it sounds appetizing!
But the reality of a late dinner and too many sides (for sharing!), often result in an enthusiastic start to the meal, followed by a sudden realisation that I have too much on my plate, and a slowdown of sorts, characterised by smaller slices and even slower chewing.
“You cannot eat anymore, right?”
Always with the commentaries, one of my close friends would point out the obvious. In the beginning of our friendship, I said no and adamantly kept going. Suddenly, with newly found rigour, fueled by a want to prove someone wrong, I cut bigger pieces of food and wolfed them down. I imagined snakes that unhinge their jaws to swallow bigger prey. I imagined residents from third world countries suffering from food shortage and how privileged I was. Often, this worked.
Eventually, as we grew older and wiser, and I grew more honest with my opinions, I would put down my cutlery, fold my hands and admit to a case of food wastage.
You see, part of my work exposes myself to social issues in Singapore and that includes our problem of food wastage. Our little 719.7 square kilometer island with its 5.6 million population generated some 800,000 tonnes of food waste. What makes it worse is how trends show a 40 percent increase over the past 10 years and are expected to increase in economic activity. With only 14 percent of such waste recycled, the remainder is left as waste.
This, according to Helping Singapore, continues to contaminate recycling efforts and demand a new incineration plant in 6-7 years.
To not finish my food means to contribute to the overarching bleakness of the future. A future where additional land size is filled with waste and an incineration plant that creates a carbon footprint larger than a plate of delicious and juicy Angus Beef, medium-rare.
Which is why I have learned to curb my insatiable appetite and practice a mindful decision-making process when choosing a meal for dinner. It would start with a simple question to the host on how a single portion would be like. If it sounds larger than life, I would choose for lesser sides or choose an entirely different option.
If it was zi char or dinner that includes sharing dishes, I found a way to settle on an individual meal beforehand, allowing my company to be mindful of the number of people who are actually sharing, almost psychologically suggesting for them to order for the right amount.
It sounds hard, but there is always a bigger picture at play.
It is all in the science, after all.