How much does “COSTCO” cost us?

I loved the NY Times Op-Ed piece (9/17/13) by Frank Bruni, Hard Truths about Our Soft Bodies. It flipped on my rant-switch regarding a topic that has been near and dear to me for years – portion size in America. I laughed out loud as he described the familiar seduction of shopping in the great “buy-oversized-and-get-the-bargain” store: COSTCO.

You see, I’m one of the VERY few people I know who has never cared for COSTCO, and have been known to argue against its value with friends. It’s not that I’m down on everything they sell, or the people who work or shop there. Even my husband has taken to it lately. And while we may laugh at each other when we’re at odds discussing COSTCO savings, I maintain that my objection is to the mindset that promotes price over need as the highest value in purchasing food.

We’re talking things that come in containers so big that you need to rent a storage pod by the time you get home from shopping there! While I get the advantage of savvy shopping via dollars saved, a stroll down the aisles of COSTCO can engender a penny-wise and pound-foolish result.

We are hooked by the insatiable bait of savings in the face of size. We love getting twice or three times as much for something – anything – because it feels “free.” But it isn’t free… it comes loaded with consequence (in the form of calories), and we can never feed this gaping maw with enough dollar savings. Our only way out is to unplug from believing in its value.

What happens when most people see these huge double or triple sized packs of food? They gorge, because all perspective over appropriate portion size is lost and people adopt the gargantuan-sized reality in front of them as normal. Unless you’re mindfully parceling out your chips and dips into 3 oz. portions, a few human-sized handfuls from a giant-sized bag looks like nothing. I don’t think it’s COSTCO’s twelve-pack of red peppers that’s the problem here.

Remember, it takes NO talent to overeat!  

When you’re seduced into buying twice the amount of food you’d normally need, it gets very challenging to listen to your internal cues of knowing “how much is enough.”[1] You’ve got the motivation of consuming it before it goes bad and losing your money’s worth. And the stuff that has a shelf-life of decades is likely greeting you with its loud “EAT ME” roar every time you open your closet or walk down to the basement to do laundry, or get another container of something from your overflow freezer or fridge.

NO, COSTCO doesn’t own the sole rights of over-sized food. I’m sorry if this feels old, but remember “Supersize Me?” I think Frank Bruni brings up an important point when he says that the trend of looking at ever more particular reasons for obesity and excess pounds “…focuses on the edges and the aggravators of the problem instead of the flabby core.”

We’ve gotten more nuanced with the alchemy of our dysfunctions in understanding: how excess sugar causes metabolic failure, our inability to digest gluten, what creates food sensitivity, and the latest syndrome – gut permeability. We also understand the psychology and chemistry behind the nefarious fast food recipes that leave us unfulfilled and wanting more. We’ve even discovered the miracle of fecal implants to restore dysfunctional intestines.

But too many of us still don’t know what REAL food is, or what normal portion sizes are – two big problems! I was at Kmart yesterday afternoon returning a really crummy electric heater. In front of me at the customer service counter was a youthful employee buying… lunch? She was just a tad overweight. She bought: a 16 oz. bottle of day-glow orange soda, a small bag of Wise potato chips (twice the size of snack bag for lunchboxes), and a cellophane wrapped, soft, beige Tasty cake thing with icing. I wanted to shake her, hug her, and scream, “Wake up! They suckered you in, don’t eat this crap… come on, I’ll buy you real food… next door at Whole Foods.”

That’s right, in the same damn parking lot two worlds exist, largely serving two different audiences. A bridge must be built that connects both worlds. One needs to elevate its food offerings, the other price leveling. But mostly, we, as a society, need to come to our senses about what is sensible, real and healthy. And in doing so, we need to reject food-gigantism as money saving when it costs us our health, and we must reject gorging our food-senses silly just because it’s affordable. Perhaps we need to simply re-interpret the name COSTCO. Instead of thinking it’s costing us less for more, we need to think of it as costing us our health and wellbeing in a really big way.

[1]How much is enough? I like what Mary Poppins implies when she says: “Enough is as good as a feast.”

Photo credit: tedeytan (used with permission under Creative Commons license)