Supersized: Why our portion sizes are ballooning

From buckets of cinema popcorn to 'meal deals' and multi-buys...

The second episode of the new BBC2 series The Men Who Made Us Fat, which looks at how the concept of super-sizing changed our eating habits, begins with the investigative journalist Jacques Peretti going into a Great Yarmouth diner for breakfast. The affable owner offers him a choice: The Big Boy, The Fat Boy, or The Kid's Breakfast, so-called because "it weighs the same as a small child".

He goes for the latter, a nine-and-a-half pound meal which includes an eight-egg omelette, 12 rashers of bacon, 12 sausages, sautéed potatoes, mushrooms, hash browns, black pudding, four fried bread, four pieces of toast and four slices of bread and butter. It costs £15 and if a single person can eat it in an hour, they get their money back. Dwarfed by the dish, Peretti fails to make a dent.

It is a shocking scene but a valuable visual for asking the question: when did our portion sizes become so out of control? While such meals are not exactly the norm, even the idea of them was unthinkable 40 years ago. How did a nation of once moderate eaters (less than two per cent of adults were obese in the Seventies) develop an appetite for monster portions that has contributed to one in four British adults today being classified as obese?

It was a cinema in Chicago that first came up with the concept of super-sizing. In 1967 David Wallerstein, an area manager for the Balaban movie theatre chain, was given the task of boosting sales of popcorn and soda. Realising that consumers wouldn't buy multiple cartons of popcorn, Wallerstein decided to introduce a large size, alongside the standard, for which they could then charge more; considerably more than the cost of the extra popcorn. An immediate success, Wallerstein was soon headhunted by McDonald's, where he applied the concept to the burger chain.

Initially the founder, Ray Kroc, was opposed to the idea, believing that if customers wanted more food then they would simply buy more. Wallerstein convinced him that people were unlikely to buy a second helping so as not to appear gluttonous. However, if they were given the option of ordering a larger size, they would often take it.

In 1972 McDonald's introduced large fries. Going large was seen as good value for consumers (it did , after all, cost less than buying two portions) yet the cost to the company for the extra food was minimal, considerably less than it would charge the customer. Profits soared and, naturally, other fast-food outlets soon followed.

In the episode, Peretti examines the rise of super-sizing with the growing concerns about the way we eat. In 1974 Professor Anthony Sclafani at the City University of New York was attempting to get rats to overeat as part of his research into studying appetite and behaviour, but they weren't putting on weight fast enough. He gave them chocolate and biscuits and they over ate, becoming obese. Rats share the same biological drive as humans, so we are likely to reflect their behaviour. By the late Seventies, the food industry knew the foods we found hardest to resist were rich in sugar and fat.

Peretti notes that in the Eighties the fast-food market had begun to stagnate and so Taco Bell, the American Mexican fast-food chain, introduced the value meal. That way companies could bundle together a number of starters, sides, drinks and desserts that the customer would order on the assumption that they were getting great value for money. Again, other fast food outlets quickly copied. "Value meals" also meant that customers took less time choosing at the counter than when they were just offered individual items.

The much maligned "super-size" value meal at McDonald's was rolled out in 1993, after it co-marketed the film Jurassic Park, offering a "Dino-size". It was so successful, it became a fixture on the menu. In one arresting scene we see the only size of soda that was available at McDonald's in the Fifties: seven ounces (207ml). A super-size soda at McDonald's was 42oz (1.19l). McDonald's began to phase out the size in 2004, though many other outlets persisted. Perreti observes it was corporate America and the constant push for increased profits that was making food sizes bigger but, dangerously, science would dictate that humans had a propensity to overeat foods high in fat and sugar.

In the late 1990s, Dr Barbara Rolls of Penn State University researched how portion size contributed to obesity. Before, it was believed if someone overate at one meal, they compensated by undereating later. What she found was that people would continue to overeat if they were given bigger portion sizes. The programme also looks at the size of chocolate bars in the UK, which have grown considerably over time and been marketed as a family snack.

When health experts persuaded manufacturers to withdraw king-size bars in 2004, they came up with the idea of "duo" or "twin" bars, which are essentially two bars in one but are marketed as being for sharing. Peretti notes that these bars are rarely shared.

Sharing is the latest buzz word for the food industry, but research shows that larger bags lead us to eat more. Dr Rolls discusses another study that demonstrated that the larger the portion of crisps, the more people eat. What the participants ate for dinner was then looked at, to see if they compensated for the bigger portion of crisps they had eaten by eating less, but they didn't. "The bag is a certain cue that it is appropriate to eat that amount and people just keep going," notes Rolls.

The final culprits in our ever expanding portions sizes are supermarkets, which encourage multi-buy promotions on what they call "expandable" foods: snacks, sweets and crisps, as the capacity to consume them is greater. Last year the number of multi-buy promotions offered on crisps, sweets and chocolate rose by 138 per cent, the supermarkets safe in the knowledge that it will get people through the door.

It is this relentless pursuit of profit that has led to upsizing on such a huge scale, which in turn has contributed to an obesity epidemic. A bucket of popcorn sure has a lot to answer for.

The Men Who Made Us Fat, 21 June, 9pm, BBC2

Voices
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
News
peopleOrlando Bloom the pin-up hero is making a fresh start
Sport
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain drives in the rain during the qualifying session of the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix in Shanghai
sport
Voices
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
filmLife for Leslie Mann's can be challenging sometimes
Extras
indybestFake it with 10 best self-tanners
Sport
Peter Moores was criticised for failing to handle top players when he last led the England team
sportFive years after being sacked from the job, Peter Moores to be named a cricket coach
Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Voices
For music lovers: John Cusack with his vinyl collection in 'High Fidelity'
voices...but don't forget the rest of the year
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
Environment
People are buying increasing numbers of plants such as lavender to aid the insects
environment
News
Ida Beate Loken has been living at the foot of a mountain since May
newsNorwegian gives up home comforts for a cave
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    NGO and Community Development in Cambodia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: There are many small development projects in ...

    Sports coaching volunteer jobs

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Kaya Responsible Travel offer a variety of sp...

    Turtle Nesting and Coral Reef Conservation in Borneo

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Volunteer with Kaya in Borneo and work on a p...

    Elephant research project in Namibia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: If you have a passion for elephants and want ...

    Day In a Page

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit