What 2,000 calories looks like…

cdc-time-to-scale-back-infographicIt is clear when exploring the research on obesity  that people have no idea how many calories they are consuming (see my prior post on the topic Why you can’t be trusted for more info).  What has happened is that the size and calories of our foods have steadily increased over the past few decades in an imperceptible way.  In addition, the size of our population has also grown.  What this creates is a situation where a new normal is created.  We all judge what is normal by an evaluation of the world around us.  If everyone around you is a healthy weight, then a healthy weight is normal.  If everyone around you is overweight then overweight becomes the new normal.  This creates a scenario where a healthy weight seems ‘abnormal’ and consequently unattainable.  The same is true of our food.  What is a normal serving?  How much food is a normal amount to eat?  We answer these questions by subconsciously comparing what we are eating to the portion sizes all around us.  What used to be a ‘normal’ serving is now considered to be very small and what used to be a ‘large’ serving is now considered ‘normal’.  As an example it used to be normal to eat a sandwich for lunch.  That’s it, just a sandwich.  Then the potato chip manufacturers started adding a small bag of chips to the meal.  After a time, a normal meal was a small sandwich and a small bag of chips.  Then the soft drink companies added a small bottle of soda to the meal and a normal lunch included the three components.  To compete with each other, the lunch makers slowly increase the quantities of their food and a new normal ensues.  After more time, they added more fat, salt, and sugar slowly to increase the pleasure associated with the food.   Eventually you reach the situation we have today where a normal lunch is a huge calorie packed combo of large sandwich, large bag of chips, and large soft drinkportion distortion

So where does that leave you?  If you want to go back to having just a small sandwich and glass of water it feels like you’re starving yourself.  It feels like this is an abnormally small meal.  In reality, its only abnormal in comparison to the meals around you.  If you were to travel back in time (back when people were much thinner) this would feel like a normal meal and today’s meal would feel like a huge feast. The same is true of your weight.  If everyone around you is 50 pounds overweight, dropping that 50 pounds seems an abnormal goal.

All that is by way of introduction to a recent article in the New York Times that showed you how easy it is to get 2,000 calories at one time.  You can see the entire article by clicking here.   The amount of calories in our food has increased to the point where you can pack in more than a full day’s worth of calories (I shoot for 1650/day for myself) in one sitting.  What’s interesting to me is that many of these meals do not seem like abnormally sized meals.  That’s what got me to thinking.  Why is that so?  The answer is what I just explained.  If you were to go back in time 30 years these would seem like abnormally large portions.  I’ve taken some excerpts from the article:

Fashionable Fast Food

All these chains high-end fast food: Potbelly, Chipotle and Shake Shack have all succeeded in attracting customers who avoid the Burger Kings of the world. Potbelly emphasizes “fresh, simple ingredients.” Chipotle says its food is locally grown and nutritious. Shake Shack has Danny Meyer’s imprimatur. Yet each can also give you an entire day’s worth of calories, not to mention sodium, in a single meal



CHIPOTLE Carnitas burrito (945), chips and guacamole (770), Coke (276).

It is possible to eat healthier at each chain. You can have a single burger instead of a double at Shake Shack or order from the “Skinnys” menu at Potbelly, which has sandwiches with fewer than 400 calories. Chipotle says burrito bowls, which leave out 300-calorie flour tortilla, even outsell burritos. But unless you’re going out of your way to minimize calories at these restaurants, you’re likely to eat far more than a meal is supposed to have.


Steak and Calories

RUTH’S CHRIS STEAKHOUSE Cowboy ribeye steak (1,690), martini (230).

The steak-and-martini is a classic American combination. At the upscale Ruth’s Chris Steak House, it’s also enough to get a typical adult to the daily calorie quota. The steak shown here is the “Cowboy Rib Eye,” a generous bone-in portion.



OLIVE GARDEN Salad (150), breadstick (140), Tour of Italy sampler (1,500), quartino of wine (230).

You can get a wider variety of food for 2,000 calories at P.F. Chang’s or Olive Garden, the casual-dining chains. (The main dishes from P.F. Chang’s here are half portions.) But you’ll still be closer to a single meal’s than a full day of food. One of Olive Garden’s investors – the fund Starboard Value –is now trying to change the situation, believing serving good food is a better strategy than simply serving lots of food. “Extreme portion size is inconsistent with authentic Italian values,” Starboard says.

A Breakfast (or Dessert) To Last All Day

IHOP Classic Skillet, with sausage (1,880); orange juice (110).

MAGGIANO’S LITTLE ITALY Zuccotto cake (1,790), cappuccino (220).

Getting a whole day’s calories from a single meal is easy. Getting a whole day’s calories from a single meal that isn’t lunch or dinner is harder — but not impossible. Try breakfast at IHOP or dessert at Maggiano’s Little Italy.

18UP-Food-slide-81GI-tmagArticle 18UP-Food-slide-702H-tmagArticle

At IHOP, a “classic skillet” comes with eggs, potatoes and pancakes — as well as the side sausage option — and is 1,880 calories. Add just a small orange juice to get to your recommended daily energy intake. At Maggiano’s it’s even simpler: Just order a slice of Chocolate Zuccotto cake that’s approximately as large as your head, and wash it down with a cappuccino.


A Single Dish

CHEESECAKE FACTORY Farfalle with chicken (2,410).

It’s not news that the Cheesecake Factory serves some very high-calorie dishes, but the numbers can still be jarring. Ordering the Farfalle with Chicken and Roasted Garlic is just one of many ways to get more than 2,000 calories in not just a single meal, but just a single dish. In fact, it’s substantially more – 2,410 – which means you can leave food on the plate and still go over your daily quota.

The dish is a calorie bomb: a vast amount of pasta with fried chicken and cream sauce. But as some food writers have noted, lighter options are available at the Cheesecake Factory, such as simply grilled fish. A Cheesecake Factory spokeswoman, Alethea Rowe, noted that the chain’s “SkinnyLicious Menu” has more than 50 options with fewer than 590 calories, making it longer than the entire menu at many restaurants. Or, you could skip the meal and just eat a slice of cheesecake, a lighter option than the farfalle.


A Single Beverage!

SONIC Peanut Butter Caramel Pie Shake (2,090).

It’s a testament to the American diet that at the 12th-largest restaurant chain in the country — Sonic – America’s Drive-In — there are multiple beverages that will deliver a full day’s worth of calories to a typical adult. The large Peanut Butter Fudge Malt or the Peanut Butter Fudge Shake will do it, and the Banana Cream Pie Malt, among others, will come close.

That’s about 2,000 calories without a single bite of food, unless you count the cherry on top.


The Old Standby

BURGER KING Double Whopper with cheese (1,070), onion rings (410), vanilla milkshake (550).

You have to stretch only a little – say, by ordering a shake rather than a soda – to turn a single fast-food meal at McDonald’s, Burger King or Wendy’s into a full day’s worth calories. And it’s not just burgers and fries doing the damage. Chicken, baked potatoes and salads can all be packed with calories, depending on how they’re prepared.


Every one of the meals above would have been considered excessive a few short decades ago.  We need to redefine these as excessive today, even for a night of treating yourself.  1/4 of these should be a normal meal, and 1/2 for special occasions.

The take home is that, in order to really be successful at weight loss you absolutely have to redefine normal.  Don’t judge by what you see around you.  The evidence is clear that these values have been significantly inflated in the past few decades.  Redefine what normal portion sizes are and you’ll redefine a new weight for yourself.  Make 2015 a throw back year.  Go retro.  Party like its 1999 and eat like it’s 1959.

More reading:

3 thoughts on “What 2,000 calories looks like…

Add yours

  1. Don’t mean to be unkind, but many of the stats don’t include height or how many folks lift or fit they are at the weights posted. In the the 1960’s most folks ate at home so making a burger size the measure is also misleading. I know we ate a TON of food growing up. Real butter. Real Sugar. Real fats of all kinds and hardly anyone was fat.

    1. The food selected is for illustration to demonstrate the point only. The evidence is clear that the size and calorie content (especially carbs) of all prepared and packaged food has increased significantly over the past 30 years. A person’s ability to assess how much you used to eat is also suspect so I’m not sure you ate as much as you think you did. You should look into the research on the difference between perceived calorie intake and actual intake. It has been shown in good studies that we may underestimate our caloric intake by as much as half. And that’s in the present. I’m sure we are inaccurate in estimating what we ate growing up.

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