by Marion Nestle
Feb 16 2009

Expanding portion sizes in the Joy of Cooking

Brian Wansink’s latest paper is an analysis of the increasing size of servings and meals through multiple editions of the classic cookbook, Joy of Cooking. These, he finds, have increased by 35%.  My former doctoral student, Lisa Young, looked at how portion sizes began to balloon in the early 1980s in parallel with increasing calories in the food supply (from 3,200 to 3,900 per day per capita) and with rising rates of obesity.  She showed how readers using identical recipes were instructed to make far fewer cookies in newer editions of the Joy of Cooking and wrote about this phenomenon in her book, The Portion Teller.

I wrote about this last year in a letter to the New York Times: “To the Editor: I could not resist looking up the calories for the gorgeous chocolate chip cookie recipe given on July 9. That recipe calls for about 4 pounds of ingredients to make only 18 cookies, each of which runs 500 calories — one quarter of the amount needed by most people for an entire day. I’d call one of those cookies lunch or share it with three friends. By the way, a similar recipe in the 1975 “Joy of Cooking” made 45 cookies with just half the ingredients. These would be just under 100 calories each.”

The point of all this: larger portions have more calories! And you need no further explanation for rising rates of obesity.

Update February 18: Wansink is a professor at Cornell, and the Cornell Chronicle did a story on it.

  • “…no further explanation”? Really? The *only* factor in the so-called “obesity epidemic” is portion sizes and a simplistic calories in/calories out assumption?

  • sid

    Mmm cookies. I had to stop baking cookies because I couldn’t resist eating them all. It wasn’t directly related to the cookie size, but to their inherent deliciousness. Oh cookies how I miss you…

  • Well, maybe THIS is the explanation.

  • Sheila

    This is really a two-fold problem. First, the size of the specific item is larger (i.e. giant cookie) and/or the recipe is richer, AND second, we still have not adjusted the internal counter on how many of these items constitutes a serving. So, many of us can’t or don’t eat just one cookie at 500 calories each, many of us still think of 2 or 3 cookies (or more) as the serving. So, now the problem is compounded…we eat 2 or 3 or more cookies at 500 calories each, and whew!! those pounds just compound exponentially.

  • Scary to see how much recipes have been upsized. Good thing I still have my 1974 version of J.O.C.

    And my favorite recipes are becoming the small batch ones where you only make 8-12 cookies at a go.

  • Increased portion size, the amount of soda or “pop” people drink, and our sedentary lifestyles are all part of the obesity problem.

  • Dblspeak

    I find this little paper very interesting. I’d love to know which 18 recipes have survived (are they main dishes, desserts, vegetables?). Just looking at the recipes that have survived over the years may not reflect the overall trend of the book. In addition many recipes now contain suggestions for lower fat and lower calorie substitutions. A study of whether the average calorie count per serving size for each chapter of the book has gone up or down over time would probably address the basic research question more accurately (but of course require a lot more work:).

    Thanks for sharing this concise study.

  • I understand why McDonald’s has created a supersized menu. But what is the explanation for the Joy of Cooking’s portion sizes to increase? I guess it’s just a reflection of current ideas about eating. What an interesting post!

  • I really wonder what the cause of this trend is. Many questions come to mind: Are the cookbooks following restaurant portion sizes? Why, then, the size increase in (American) restaurant dishes? Lisa Young points to the rise in calories available per person, but does that instantly mean we have to eat that much more? Does the availability of calories simply make everything cheaper? Then why not cheaper dishes, not bigger dishes?

    Ug, cause and effect are so obscure when it comes to these sorts of things.

  • sid

    junk food vendors in canada are on this oversized train too. A small size bag of chips used to be one ounce, now is two ounces. Coke used to be 7-12 ounces, is now 16. The list goes on. Try to buy a small coffee, you get a 12-16 oz cup. In a related vein, try to get a hotel on saturday night, and they are going to bill you for two nights even if you only stay one night. I figure for evry nice person in the world there are a dozen devious scumbuckets trying to rob you legally or not. Many of these seem to have MBAs.

  • Pingback: Obesity And…The Joy of Cooking? | GrubGirl.()

  • Pingback: News bites: eat cheaper and better | Homecooking Revival()

  • Pingback: Read More About Episode 106: Wild Games : No Satiation()