“Portion Control” is a popular buzz-word in nutrition. It has a serious and somewhat quantitative sound as if it were recently discovered and transcends what it really means which is, of course, self-control. Self-control has been around for long time and has a poor history as a dieting strategy.  Lip service is paid to how we no longer think that overeating means that you are a bad person but “portion control” is just the latest version of the moralistic approach to dieting; the sense of deprivation that accompanies traditional diets may be one of the greatest barriers to success. Getting away from this attitude is probably the main psychological benefit of low-carbohydrate diets.  “Eat all the meat you want” sounds scary to the blue-stockings at the USDA but most people who actually use such diets know that the emphasis is on “want” and by removing the nagging, people usually find that they have very little desire to clean their plate and don’t eat any more meat than they ever did.  Coupled with the satiety of fat and protein compared to carbohydrate, this is surely a major factor in the success of carbohydrate restriction.  In the big comparison trials, the low-fat trials are constrained to fix calories while the low-carbohydrate group is allowed to eat ad-libitum, and the two groups usually come out about the same total calories.

On the other hand, there is an obvious benefit to having a lean and hungry feel if not look and, as Woody Allen might have put it: eating less is good if only for caloric reasons.  So, one tactic in a low carbohydrate diet is to eat a small portion — say, one fried egg, a small hamburger — and then see if you are still hungry before having the second or third portion which while not forbidden, is also not required. The longer you wait between portions, the more satiety sets in.

The serious sound of “portion control” illustrates the importance of language in the food world.  Brian Wansink has shown how people actually find that a fine wine re-bottled with an appellation d’origine contrôlée of North Dakota doesn’t taste very good.  Evocative words, however meaningless in the context, are a great aid in pushing a food product. Who doesn’t prefer a rasher of bacon or creamery butter?  And I have seen xanthan gum, a non-carbohydrate thickener described on food packages as “vegetable fiber” (accurate but it is such an effective thickener that you are unlikely to hit the USDA’s recommended daily intake in a lifetime).

Foreign words, especially on menus, are apt to carry an overtone of sophistication or of the exotic.  The most ironic are the deserts that are almost always written as crème anglaise or zuppa inglese.  Some of these words are new.  People of my generation know that pasta and latte have only recently been introduced into English and are not always accepted by Italian-Americans (unless actually speaking Italian) or are used in a literal sense: having coffee in Little Italy, with a visitor from Seattle (could have been anyplace, really), she ordered a “latte,” and the waiter brought her a glass of milk.

It has always seemed to me that, if read with the right intonation, everything in Italian will sound like Dante. The late Vittorio Gassman — a great actor whom many of my generation will remember as the hapless boxer turned hapless burglar in “Big Deal on Madonna Street” — gives dramatic readings on YouTube of  a restaurant menu and of the ingredients on a package of frollini (cookies).

The charm of the exotic sometimes back-fires. The close connection between your poo and your carbohydrate intake leads to the French for starch being fécule. Some translations of Brillat-Savarin render this as  “fecula” leading one commenter on the internet to conclude “ooh, gross.”

One of the few odd facts that I have been unable to track down and verify on the internet is that menus in Ancient Rome were printed in Greek, the way English menus at banquets used to be printed in French.  I have never been able to confirm this but my old friend, Paul Leopold, an actual expert in language and to whom I am indebted for those points on language in this post that are accurate, pointed out that Greek was, in general, used in Rome the way French was the world-wide language of sophistication until English became the Lingua Franca.  (Franca is from Arabic and Greek meaning generally Western European rather than just French which I always thought).  In Shakepeare’s Julius Caesar, Casca tells his fellow conspirators that Cicero spoke to the crowd in Greek and: “for mine own part, it was Greek to me” which was probably a joke even in Shakespeare’s time (if not Caesar’s).

“Portion control” illustrates the principle in English language that we use words derived from French or other latinate sources when we want to make them sound important, while we use Anglo-Saxon words for more straight-forward communication. “Exercise portion control” really means “don’t eat too much.”

English is really two languages.  Anglo-Saxon, or old English is a Germanic language and essentially a foreign language to all but some English majors  (On angynne gescheop God heofon and eorðan).  (The original language of the British Isles was Celtic but the Saxons appear to have been the Nazis of the fourth century and chased the natives into the hills; Celtic words are mostly names of place and are otherwise rare, as Native American words are in the US).  After the Norman Invasion (1066 and all that; the book of that name is a parody of English history ), the court spoke French while common folk spoke Anglo-Saxon. As the languages merged, one or another word from French or Anglo-Saxon became the common one.  Middle English is definitely English (In the first made God of nought heuen and erth). It is said that that is why English has no genders (Dieu sei dank) because the genders for the same word in French or Anglo-Saxon were different.  In any case, there are essentially two ways of saying everything in English and some sense of the original distinction remains: the more down-to-earth way derives from Anglo-Saxon while the more important sounding from French.  I explain to my students that they thank their committee members in an email but are grateful to them in the submitted thesis.

In addition to “portion control,” I’m inclined to think that you “eat the cooking,” while I “dine on the cuisine,” and going back to my last post, “intention-to-treat” means “what I was hoping for.”  Nutritionists tend to say that diets are high (hoch, Ger.) in fat, but alternatively, say that they are rich in whole grains.  On the chance that this is interesting to you, I have included two accounts of a birthday feast, contrived by Paul Leopold, one derived from Anglo-Saxon and one from French (and other imported, largely latinate,) words.  Bon appetit.

The same thing said with (A) Anglo-Saxon and (B) French vocabulary.

A. Yearly on his birthday, in the high hall built by his forefathers, hung with rich cloths and bright with shining silver and gold, His Highness the King was wont, in his happy mood, to bid kinsfolk, underlings and all dwellers in the neighborhood, from the right wealthy to the downright wretched, to sup heartily in his fellowship at a huge board which groaned mightily owing to the great weight it upheld of seemingly endless meat and drink.

B. At the annual commemoration of his nativity, in the exalted residence erected by his ancestors, adorned with precious textiles and refulgent with argentine and aureate splendor, His Majesty the Monarch was accustomed, in his jovial disposition, to invite relations, subordinates and all the inhabitants of the vicinity, from the exceeding prosperous to the abjectly indigent, cordially to dine in his company at an immense table which resonated powerfully by reason of the magnitude of the ponderosity it sustained of apparently infinite comestibles and beverages

  1. Gretchen says:

    I think the Norman invaders spoke Norman, reflecting their nordic roots as well as standard French of the time. However, this fact probably won’t help anyone lose weight quickly unless you dine at a Norman restaurant and order something you hate because you can’t understand the menu.

    I agree that one positive thing about LC diets is the lack of feeling deprived unless you’re an incurable carb junkie. I started out on the ADA diet, which allowed me 2 oz of meat per meal. I felt constantly deprived. Now, on a LC diet, I often don’t want more than 2 oz, although I sometimes gorge on 3 or even 4 oz, but it’s because I’ve had enough, not because some authority wouldn’t let me, so I’m happy.

    • rdfeinman says:

      All this is true of the Normans and I can only add some comments from 1066 and all that:

      When William the Conqueror landed he lay down on the beach and swallowed two mouthfuls of sand. This was his first conquering action and was in the South; later he ravaged the North as well. The Norman Conquest was a Good Thing, as from this time onwards England stopped being conquered and thus was able to become top nation….WILLIAM next invented a system according to which everybody had to belong to somebody else, and everybody else to the King. This was called the Feutile System, and in order to prove that it was true he wrote a book called the Doomsday Book, which contained an inventory of all the Possessions of all his subjects; after reading the book through carefully William agreed with it and signed it, indicating to everybody that the Possessions mentioned in it were now his.

      William the Conqueror (1066) is memorable for having loved an old stag as if it was his father, and was in general very fond of animals: he therefore made some very just and conquering laws about the Forests. One of these laws said that all the forests and places which were not already Possessions belonged to the King and that anyone found in them should have his ears and legs cut off (these belonged to somebody else under the Feutile System, anyway) and (if this had not already been done) should have his eyes put out with red-hot irons; after this the offender was allowed to fly the country.
      Although in all these ways William the Conqueror (1066) was a very strong king he was eventually stumbled to death by a horse and was succeeded by his son Rufus.

      Wikipedia makes the point that Dave Barry never gave credit to 1066 and all that but I have a feeling that he may have worked it out for himself.

  2. […] Low-Carb Diets and the Language of Food. September 5, 2011By: rdfeinman Read the Full Post at: Richard David Feinman “Portion Control” has recently become a buzz-word in nutrition. It has a serious sound as if it […]

  3. Jim Jozwiak says:

    Actually, I like portion control. I admit that if simple rules-of-thumb, such as avoiding carbs, worked for me, it would be preferable. But when I avoided carbs, I felt low on physical exuberance, low on mood, and I was gaining fat mass. And other simple-minded ideas I tried were also unsatisfactory. So instead, I counted grams of protein, carbs (both glucose and fructose) and fat, and tried to find optima under two scenarios, negative energy balance and positive energy balance. Protein and carb optima were the same under both scenarios, which seems reasonable. Now that I know how much I want of everything, I don’t look at portion control as deprivation, but rather as a great boon to feeling well all the time.

    • rdfeinman says:

      I was not suggesting that there is anything wrong with ‘portion control’ but only that the term is a fancy way of saying ‘don’t eat too much’ which is not an intellectual breakthrough in the diet field. Most people know not to eat too much. The question is how? I suggested one way that the idea can be used in low-carb diets. People have created plates that are divided to show you were the portions of things are and this probably helps some people but mostly it is a moralistic thing. From your description of you own behavior, you are probably a person deserving of admiration. And ‘portion’ may have a behavioral component; to many of us, a portion of Häagen-Dasz is the size of the container that it is in.

    • Oujib Delamere says:

      “low on physical exuberance, low on mood…”

      –> That was just the low-carb “flu” which occurs in the first few days after you stop eating sugars and starches. Just your body adjusting to using fat as fuel instead of glucose. It goes away within a couple of days and you soon start feeling the benefits of low carb — which include tons of energy!

    • Jim – take a look at Dr. Mike Eades series on how to do a low carb diet right. It will explain why you felt crummy on a LC diet. http://www.proteinpower.com.

  4. Oujib Delamere says:

    p.s. Dr. F — I totally agree with you re: “portion control”. The catchphrases and buzzwords of mainstream nutrition are absolute Newspeak!

    • rdfeinman says:

      There is a continuum between much of the mainstream nutritional literature and the “News.” I think WebMD is a good example but I haven’t checked in a while. On the other hand, there is a continuum between real science and some of the bloggers. Know what I mean?

      • Heather Dreith says:

        Just today, Web MD had an article about “make it meatless tonight.” Sheesh!
        I really enjoyed your discussion of language…made me smile. Thanks for all your good work.

  5. Jim Anderson says:

    “. . . the emphasis is on ‘want’ and by removing the nagging, people usually find that they have very little desire to clean their plate and don’t eat any more meat than they ever did.”

    This has been true for me eating a low-carb diet. I eat (or shall I say “consume”?) more fish, eggs, nuts and non-starchy veggies than ever, but not more red meat. And my caloric intake has dropped by a thousand calories a day without any special effort on my part. I was counting carbs, but the software I used also gave the calorie total, and I was surprised how low it was since I was not going hungry at all. I still don’t go hungry. That’s my portion control. I eat until I’m full and I stop. It seems like a strange way to lose weight. I ought to be suffering, but I’m not.

  6. janknitz says:

    I remember a Dennis the Menace cartoon from my childhood. He is walking away from a yard sale with a GIANT serving spoon and explaining to his pal, Joey “I’m gonna use this spoon when Mom says I can only have ONE spoonful of something.”

    Sounds like portion control to me!

  7. I just watched your AHS talk via Vimeo and listened to your Latest in Paleo interview. Thanks for all the great info and perspective, and for all the important work you’re doing.

    Have you read or seen the book and multi-part British documentary “The Adventure of English”? Here’s a link to a page with links to the episodes on Google Video. http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/adventure-of-english/ (Click the text links; the screen link was out of commission when I tried it.) The book is wonderful. (I read it in audiobook format, especially enjoyable, I think.) Author Melvyn Bragg isn’t kidding when he puts “adventure” in the title. Based on your post above, I believe you would love ’em both!

  8. […] Portion Control, Low-Carb Diets and the Language of Food … […]

  9. […] Primal Corner – Portion Control, Low-Carb Diets and the Language of Food. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s