You know White Castle, right? The hamburger place? Sells those good, greasy
“sliders,” which are really mini-burgers, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand?

Does anyone eat just one of those? No. People buy four. Six. Twelve. Whatever. They eat until they’re beyond full. In some cases, they eat more than they would if the burgers were large, because it feels as if you’re eating less when the portions are shrunk.

So why does anyone think that McDonald’s eliminating its “super size” products will somehow cut back on our obesity? The world’s largest restaurant chain announced with great fanfare last week that it was ditching such items as its 42-ounce sodas — in part, a McDonald’s spokesperson said, “to support a more balanced lifestyle.”

Funny, I always thought “a more balanced lifestyle” meant working fewer hours, not shrinking the bun. Let’s face it. If people want to pig out on french fries, can’t they get two orders? One “large” order at McDonald’s still carries about 120 fries and 540 calories. That’s not exactly Weight Watchers.

Sure, having something called “Supersize” was an easy enticement — you’re already there, you’re already blowing whatever diet you just started, so why not go for the gluttony? But the fact is, if you really love McDonald’s, you’ll be back enough times to get nice and fat.

Portions have little to do with it.

A culture of big appetites

A bigger question might be why we love super-sized food in the first place? I have European friends who visit. We go out to eat. Inevitably, they are aghast when the food arrives.

“Oh my, is all that for me?” they’ll say. “I can’t possibly finish that!”

Doesn’t matter what it is. A pizza. A nacho plate. A steak. A large Greek salad. To them, we Americans are always eating for two, even when we’re not pregnant.

I have been trying to think of why this is. Here is what I have concluded: 1) Europeans hail from generations of hardship; there is always a story of some potato famine in the family. 2) Lunch there is usually larger than dinner. 3) And this is not a small item — they are not as rich as we are. Money is tighter. Cars are smaller. A bit of frugality is held in high regard.

Americans, on the other hand, embrace their good fortune. We revel in our freedom, and if that means all you can eat at the buffet bar, well, shoot, grab two plates. Big portions make us happy. Big portions remind us that, at least in the most fundamental human activity, eating, we’ve got it all over everyone else.

Food as a stress-buster

I also believe we eat now for comfort, more than ever before, for along with being the richest nation in the world, we are likely the most stressed. Having more means working more, wanting more, we are always chasing bigger portions of life’s success, and if we can’t get them all in our bank accounts, well, at least we can load up our plates.

I don’t think it’s an accident that in the United States, our poorest citizens are often our fattest. That is not how it has gone historically, you know. Poor used to suggest thin. But here, in the land of opportunity, if nothing else, we can eat a lot for a little. And our food outlets and restaurants have discovered that “comfort” foods — chocolates, pizzas, Cinnabons — will never go out of style, so long as we have frustrations.

I’m the first to admit it. When things go sour and I pass a dessert place, there’s a loud “what the heck?” voice that says, “Go ahead, buy that hunk of chocolate cake, buy that huge caramel apple.”

At those moments, the bigger it is, the better it looks. And the problem isn’t the place that makes it. The problem is I see it as salvation.

That probably won’t change, not anytime soon. Food for many of us is a companion, an escape, an addiction, or a substitute for something else. Downsizing the portions won’t change that. Only downsizing our appetites will.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. “The Mitch Albom Show” is 3-6 weekdays and “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 Mondays on WJR-AM (760).

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