Manolo for the Big Girl Fashion, Lifestyle, and Humor for the Plus Sized Woman.

February 22, 2009

Warning: Cooking At Home Makes You Fat

Filed under: Food,This Week In Fat Blogging — Twistie @ 8:30 am

For years now we’ve been told that one of the leading causes of the Obesity Epidemic (boogeda, boogeda!) is the way that Americans eat out too often. It’s been blamed on Mickey D’s and Col. Sanders (for those of us old enough to remember the good Col. who is now known as KFC), on MarieCallendar and your corner steak house and, well, really just about anyplace outside the home where you might get something to eat.

But now a new study informs us the problem is closer to home. For those not familiar with other work by Brian Wansink, who’s a marketing professor at Cornell University, he’s also the author of a recent comparison of how fat people and thin people eat at Chinese buffet restaurants that concluded fat people are fat…because they put napkins on their chests rather than their laps or sit at tables rather than in booths. Now he is putting the blame for American girth squarely on good old home cooking.

Yes, it seems the real culprit is The Joy of Cooking, that staple of American gastronomic literature. Wansink found that of eighteen recipes (chosen because they appear in every edition of the book from 1931 to the present), seventeen of them had risen in fat content, portion size, and calories. Some recipes had risen in calories by as much as forty per cent. The ones that included meat used more meat than when they started.

For instance, the Chicken Gumbo recipe in 1936 made 14 servings at 228 calories each. The same recipe in 2006 made 10 servings at 576 calories each. On the face of it, that sounds pretty dire, doesn’t it?

Reality, though, is a very different question. The study not only picks a miniscule number of recipes to compare (according to Amazon, the number of recipes in the 2006 edition of Joy of Cooking is a whopping 4,500, which makes 18 look prettyteensy potatoes), it does not take into consideration the way people actually eat or how that has changed over the same time period.

When Joy of Cooking was first published in 1931, people who had suffcient money to get what was considered adequate food ate a lot more courses per meal than we do now. Even when I was a child in the 1960’s, it was not unusual for dinner to consist of meat; a potato, rice, or noodle dish, often with a sauce or gravy; two vegetables or a vegetable side and a salad; bread or rolls and butter; dessert. That’s about six different foods being consumed in a single meal. Now most people eat from two to four things per meal. Meat, veggies, and grain or potato dish, with an option of dessert, which many people avoid or save up for special occasions. The human body still needs more or less the same amount of fuel to get through the day, but we expect to consume it in less dishes. It stands to reason that a few of these dishes would be served in larger portions.

Another aspect that isn’t being considered very carefully is the changes in society and availability of food over these same years. 1931? Yeah, that was the Great Depression when my father in law frequently had a single raw onion on white bread sandwich to see him through from the time he woke until dinner, when he got beans or macaroni and cheese sans any veggies or meat because his family couldn’t afford them. According to Wansink , the rise in calories in his handful of recipes started in the second half of the 1940’s…about the time that WWII rationing was being phased out and there was easier access to sugar, meat, and other high-calorie items. This is also a period in which huge advances were made in learning how to preserve and transport fragile foods across the country. Instead of seeing how the economy and science might be affecting what people were able to get,Wansink sees this, apparently, as the spur to restaurants increasing portion size in the 1970’s…some thirty years later.

What’s more, he seems to see it as a universally negative thing…something I’m sure my late father in law would have been happy to argue with him, despite the fact that he continued to consider those onion sandwiches a taste treat.
Wansink further seems to ignore the possibility that the original portion sizes were out of step with what and how people were actually eating. Anyone who has ever made a recipe according to instructions and wondered how anyone managed to get six dozen cookies out of it in the test kitchen knows what I’m talking about.

In short, Mr. Wansink has determined that eating out makes us fat and eating in makes us fat, and being fat makes us die. So where and how shall we eat, Mr. Wansink?

And by the way, I would consider that bowl of chicken gumbo a nice dinner in and of itself. I don’t think 576 calories is at all unreasonable for a one-dish meal, do you?

No, I didn’t think so.


  1. Considering the way that I cook at home I don’t think that 576 calories in one meal is to much. The problem I see with studies that talk about fat people is that they use the numbers to say whatever they want.

    For the most part, cooking at home means we will eat less and be more likely to pay more attention to what we eat and the portion size. I have been at this for 4 years and twisted articles like this have not and will not stop.

    Comment by Glen — February 22, 2009 @ 9:16 am

  2. I know studies and articles like the one linked aren’t going to stop anytime soon…but at least I can try to help a few folks read them a bit more critically…and then eat a bowl of delicious, delicious chicken gumbo.

    Comment by Twistie — February 22, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

  3. I would also argue that familes were larger back then, as well. You had a recipe that really said it serves 8 because there was a good chance it had to. Now, it may have to feed three or four. That’s why the good recipe sites have those little buttons that recalculate the ingredients for however many servings you put in.

    I absolutely have noticed that when I eat out rather than cooking, I have to make more decisions based what I know about how much “nutrition” something may have. We went to Macaroni Grill the other day and I had the garlic cream sauce over bow tie pasta with carmelized onions and pine nuts. So I’m aware that whatever else I ate that day, I should consider balancing the fat content for my heart, if nothing else. I also know that while you’re paying for one “serving” or meal, I have never left that restaurant without having to take half of it home, so it really was two meals worth at least. Eating out in general will always be worse because 1- you don’t control what they put in it or cook with, and 2-you never know if the restaurant is telling the truth about that. It happens.

    And if Mr. Wansink is dissing people’s table manners, I may be fat, but I’ve only ever worn my napkin as a bib when eating shellfish. Again, someone who sees something they don’t like on one or two people they don’t like, and then generalizes it to the whoel group so they can not like the whole group. Oh, wait… I just defined prejudice.

    Comment by mo — February 22, 2009 @ 1:14 pm

  4. Eh, I am an academic (but this is not my field, I should say; but I am in a field that is generally so obsessed with statistics we’re usually pretty snotty to marketing types like Wasinek). To me, public health has hyped obesity so much as a means to promote their field’s importance to the world (they’ll save us millions and bajillion-gillions in health care costs by whipping those fat people ito shape! Not, of course, by whipping the crap medical services industry into shape or lobbying for universal access to health care, but making YOU take small steps! That’ll fix it!). The hype has worked (boogeda is right) so that if you put “obesity” in the title of anything you can get it published and you can funding for it. Wansink’s “work” reminds me of all those supposedly scientific studies proving that black people are just plain dumber than white people. Given that there is an epidemic of obesity, should these bib-napkin wearers be all around us all the time? And yet, I have never, not once, not in 40 years on this here planet earth, living on the West Coast, the East Coast, and yes, those fattest of the fat regions, the South and the Midwest ever seen any live human being, thin or fat, tuck a napkin into his/her collar EXCEPT on television.

    One thing I can say without reservation: generalizing from 18 recipes is statistical nonsense….Twistie’s right. It’s a ludicrously small number and there is no excuse for it and any peer reviewers of the work should have handed him his fanny. (Sometimes with medical studies you have deal with small numbers because the phenomenon is rare. This, OTOH, is just him wanting to race forward and cash in.)
    Scholars in nutrition are actually *qualified* to do this type of research, and I’m pretty sure they have made conclusions about how much recipes and food has changed. I’d actually listen to them, not some dude in a business school.

    Comment by Chaser — February 22, 2009 @ 1:46 pm

  5. if you eat at home,you wont eat as much,because you didnt pay for was made at home.
    and 576 calories isnt much for
    A)chicken gumbo
    b)one dish

    so go aay scientists of eval

    Comment by jessie — February 22, 2009 @ 3:46 pm

  6. I agree that he utterly fails to forget that there where multiple courses at one point. I’d like to know how many calories a 12 course Victorian dinner where in comparison to how many they burned dancing till dawn.

    The things that really need to be considered when witch-hunting for a reason for fat in our modern age are rarely actually explored in some non-batshit insane way.

    For instance, these HUGE calorie meals seem less appalling when I consider that most of the people I know eat only one meal a day. In fact, it seems to me that people are under fueled for their busy-lives at this time, and don’t have the normal time to sit down and eat every meal they might need. When ‘they’ say that slightly smaller meals eaten many times a day are better, they mean it! Frankly I’d love the time to make a lovely breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day… but who has the time?

    Lets also consider stress, which can also cause someone to retain fat that’s hard to get rid of, OH and the fact that we’re all twisting ourselves into a pretzel over being overweight when we’re not stressing about life in general.

    I’d like to see real honest research done on just what differences there are between someone who is just overweight, and to never be called ‘slightly obese’ again. I’d like to see a headline like, “SCIENTISTS have discovered: Slim people die as well!”.

    Hah. Fat chance?

    Comment by MissSpite — February 23, 2009 @ 7:29 am

  7. If you ate 3 meals of 576 cals, you’d eat 1728 calories that day. That seems like a reasonable number, even a little low (depending on your situation). But even so, calories in do not equal calories out, or every diet plan would work for every person!

    Comment by penguinlady — February 23, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

  8. According to the Department of Agriculture (, a sedentary middle-aged woman requires approximaterly 1800 calories per day. A younger, more active woman is recommended to get roughly 2200 calories a day.

    Three meals of the suggested serving size of chicken gumbo in the current Joy of Cooking would be less than adequate caloric intake for an average sedentary, middle-aged woman, and completely inadequate for an active young woman.

    And yes, penguinlady, as you point out, it’s not as simple as calories in/calories out. We’re more complex than that by a long shot.

    Me? I’m not going to keep that close an eye on calories. I prefer to pay attention to how full or empty I’m feeling at the moment, and whether or not I feel well. Since I started doing that, I’m in much better overall health.

    Comment by Twistie — February 23, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

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