By Sabrina Petersen
In 2004, two girls filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s, claiming that its food had made them obese. Had it really?
Curious to answer this question, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock decided to explore the effects of a fast-food diet. The study’s subject? Himself! For 30 days, Spurlock committed to eating only at McDonald’s, and whenever offered, he had to supersize his meal—thus the title of the documentary: Super Size Me.
Spurlock began with a visit to three physicians, a nutritionist, and a physical trainer, who confirmed that he was at a healthy weight and above-average physical fitness. Throughout the experiment, Spurlock ate the typical portions served at McDonald’s (for example, one burger with a drink and side of fries), aside from an occasional supersized meal. Even so, he ended up consuming about 5,000 calories per day—twice the amount recommended for an adult male!
The changes in Spurlock’s health shocked him and his doctors. Within just two weeks, his liver had accumulated fat, a condition typically seen in alcoholics heading toward liver failure. His blood pressure and cholesterol levels had shot up. Spurlock was also gaining weight quickly, and by the end of the month, he would weigh 25 more pounds.1
Though Super Size Me is an extreme example, it makes an important point: the standard American diet—which has spread worldwide—is hurting us. We pile our tables high with sweets for parties. During holidays, we indulge ourselves beyond fullness on all the delicacies. But our daily diets aren’t much better. We fear hunger and avoid the feeling by snacking frequently. Or we turn to a tub of ice cream or a bag of potato chips to de-stress from a rough day. Eating has even become a hobby for some who have taken on the term “foodie.” Clearly, the culture of excess has shaped the way we relate to food.
Our fixation on food is far from harmless and has created a worldwide problem that kills more people than starvation. In the past 45 years, obesity has tripled worldwide, and 2016 statistics show that 1.9 billion adults are overweight and 650 million are obese. That’s nearly 40 percent of people!2
And adults are not the only ones affected by this trend! The percentage of children who are overweight or obese has increased from 4 to 18 percent since 1970. Many of these children are on the path to experiencing the weight-related chronic diseases of their parents: cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, and certain types of cancer.3
The outlook is not looking good! As eating habits have spiraled out of control, so has health. What can we do to change course?
In recent years, research has revealed a very simple solution to the problem of overweight—mild calorie restriction. But simple doesn’t mean easy because this solution tends to cut across our tendency toward excess. When we eat out, don’t we prefer the restaurants that offer bigger portions? And though we wouldn’t admit it, we’ve probably all been guilty at some point of choosing the largest piece of pie or the biggest cookie! We’ve come to associate bigger with better. But the opposite may actually be true: less is more!
But let me assure you that “less is more” doesn’t mean starving yourself or eating extremely restricted portions. Decreasing calorie intake has more to do with what you eat and when you eat than precise portion control. Here are some simple lifestyle tips that incorporate this principle:
Eat nutrient-dense foods. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are nutrient-dense foods; they are low in calories but loaded with satiating vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Contrast these with calorie-dense foods, usually made with white flour, refined sugar, oil, and animal products. These calories are not very satisfying and leave you craving for more. For example, a 215-calorie Snickers bar is not likely to satisfy your hunger, but for the same number of calories, you could fill up on two sweet potatoes or four cups of strawberries! By eating whole foods, you’ll naturally consume fewer calories and curb your cravings.
Eat less frequently. Meal timing also plays a role in calorie consumption and weight gain. In fact, the body is better able to process calories earlier in the day. Having a longer window of time (at least 18 hours) between the last meal of the day and the first meal of the day the next morning is also associated with decreased body mass index (BMI).4 This practice is sometimes called intermittent fasting.
Though weight loss strategies have touted eating frequent small meals as a weight loss hack, snacking may actually contribute to weight gain. One study compared subjects that ate three meals a day with those who ate six meals a day. It concluded that eating more frequently may actually increase “hunger and the desire to eat” instead of decreasing it!5
Eat until you’re 80 percent full. The island of Okinawa is known for being a “blue zone,” a region in the world where many people live into their hundreds. One of the secrets of these Okinawan centenarians is a practice called hara hachi bu. The phrase refers to eating only until 80 percent full—the point at which hunger is gone. Okinawans eat slowly, chewing their food thoroughly and paying attention to their body’s cues. Because the stomach’s signals of satiety take about 30 minutes to reach the brain, this practice prevents them from feeling “stuffed” at the end of a meal.6
You don’t have to be an Okinawan to practice hara hachi bu. At your next meal, serve yourself slightly less than what you believe will fill you, and stop eating when you no longer feel hungry.
Eat from smaller plates. Speaking of serving yourself, you may want to consider what you’re eating from. How big are your dishes? In the past 70 years, as portion sizes and waist circumferences have increased, so have the sizes of plates, bowls, and cups! Psychologist Brian Wansink observed from some experiments he conducted that people tend to eat more when they have larger plates.7 Thus, using a smaller plate or bowl can help decrease calorie consumption when you do decide to splurge on that decadent dessert. You probably won’t feel any less satisfied either!
Excessive eating, though directly connected to our health, has a deeper issue at its core: lack of self-control. In fact, the Bible makes strong statements about appetite becoming a god in our lives.8
But the Bible also offers us a solution: the strength to change. As we give ourselves to God and cooperate with His will, He in turn gives us the Holy Spirit and provides us with self-control, a fruit of the Spirit. Gal. 5:23. Your will, empowered by His strength, will enable you to incorporate the above lifestyle principles and turn away from the fixation on food. The craving for excess does not have to control you!
For further study, see the following resources: Fighting Disease with Food and The Ministry of Healing
“Super Size Me,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
“Obesity and Overweight,” World Health Organization, who.int, June 9, 2021.
Kahleova et al., “Meal Frequency and Timing,” The Journal of Nutrition, 147(9), 2017, pp. 1722–28.
Ohkawara et al., “Effects of Increased Meal Frequency,” Obesity, 21(2), 2013, pp. 336–43.
D. Buettner, “Hara Hachi Bu,” Blue Zones, bluezones.com, Jan. 2011.
Wilson et al., “Our Gigantic Problem with Portions,” The Guardian, April 25, 2016.
Eze. 16:49; Phil. 3:19.
Sabrina Petersen is the associate editor for Last Generation and a certified plant-based nutritionist through the American Fitness Professionals Association.