As Waistlines Grow, So Do Refrigerator Sizes

You steered clear of the snack machine at the office; even packed a healthy lunch. So far, so good on the calorie intake.

But as you rifle through the collection of prepackaged dinner entrees in your supersized freezer, it suddenly becomes clear why your waistline keeps expanding.

Barry Popkin, a professor in the school of public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, notes that the growing scale of home appliances has ushered in a new paradigm in how Americans purchase and prepare meals, enabling stressed out and overworked families to stockpile convenience foods that minimize their time in the kitchen.

“Americans aren’t using the kitchen anymore,” said Popkin. “A lot of these hot-shot appliances, like Viking stoves, are hardly ever used to prepare fresh food. They’re using these supersized Sub-Zero refrigerators to store prepackaged and highly processed foodsthat contain more sugar, more sodium and more fat.”

Refrigerators stand on display at a Conn's Inc. store in Houston, Texas, U.S., on Tuesday Sept. 4, 2012.
Refrigerators stand on display at a Conn's Inc. store in Houston, Texas, U.S., on Tuesday Sept. 4, 2012.

Refrigerators today average 22.5 cubic feet, up from 19.6 cubic feet in 1980, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers.

Many proudly flaunt their capacity to store large pizza boxes and full size sheet cakes on their ample shelves.

While no empirical data exist that link larger appliances to the obesity epidemic in the U.S., the trend does enable a culture of excess, in which we buy more, eat more, and waste more than ever before, said Lisa Young, an adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University and author of “The Portion Teller.”

“Everything, especially our refrigerators, is bigger and when we have more space we buy more and make more food,” she said. “The theory is that you’ll save the leftovers and eat it later in the week, but that rarely happens.”

More often than not, said Young, the extra food becomes bigger portions, a significant factor in weight gain.

The latest data from the USDA’s Economic Research Service reveal the average number of calories Americans consume daily jumped to 2,604 in 2010 from 2,155 in 1970.

The average weight for American men age 20 and older also rose to nearly 195 pounds in 2006 from 166.3 pounds in 1960, while the average weight for women of the same age increased to nearly 165 pounds in 2006 from 140.2 pounds in 1960, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Read More:Fattest Cities.)

A third of adults in the U.S. are overweight, while 36 percent are considered obese, CDC data show.

The Second-Refrigerator Syndrome

Not everyone, of course, can afford the mega-sized professional grade refrigerators that are popular in high-end homes, some of which sell for upwards of $10,000.

But homeowners, especially those in rural and suburban areas, increasingly make room for extra ice cream and frozen lasagnas via the second fridge or freezer they keep in their basement or garage.

The Energy Department reports 22 percent of U.S. households have a second refrigerator, up from 12 percent in 1984.

Short-term studies confirm consumers consistently eat more when more is made available.

For example, a 2004 study by B.J. Rolls at Pennsylvania State University found that adults who were offered four different portion sizes of macaroni and cheese on different days ate more when offered the larger portion. Only 45 percent of the subjects reported noticing that there were differences in the size of the portions served.

To be fair, of course, consumers are free to stock their refrigerator shelves with healthy fare, too, but impulse control remains an elusive mistress for most, said Richard Wilk, an anthropology professor at Indiana University, who specializes in consumer culture.

“Impulse control is one of the hardest parts of dieting,” said Wilk. “When there are nine kinds of Haagen-Dazs in your freezer and a frozen Entenmann's cake, it makes it too easy to snack. Having a big refrigerator is like having a convenience store right in your house.”

That does not bode well for young adults, he notes, who increasingly opt to stay at home and communicate via social media outlets — close to their supply of chips and sugary soft drinks.

“It’s becoming clear that the next generation is having problems with sociability,” said Wilk. “A lot of them are more comfortable at home communicating by instant message, text, or Facebookthan they are actually talking to each other.”

The Warehouse-Club Effect

The proliferation of oversized and second refrigerators has been driven in part by the popularity of Costco ,Wal-Mart'sSam’s Club unit and other warehouse stores, where shoppers increasingly turn to stock their shelves with bulk food.

Psychologically, Young suggests such clubs compel members to buy enough to recoup their annual membership fee, and worse, consume what they buy before it goes bad.

“This encourages overconsumption,” said Young. “That’s OK for toilet paper, but it’s not a good idea for food. The more you buy, the more you tend to eat.”

More Food, Bigger Appetite

Fat man at fridge
Dimitri Vervitsiotis | Digital Vision | Getty Images
Fat man at fridge

Indeed, Brian Wansink, director of the food and brand lab at Cornell University, tracked the eating habits of 240 warehouse club shoppers for two weeks in 2005 and found that most ate more because there was more food in the house.

While members claimed they were buying food for an entire month, Wansink found the majority consumed almost half of what they had purchased within 10 days.

“People these days buy an enormous amount of food and it’s promoted this idea of stocking groceries so there’s always a variety around,” said Wilk.

The Environmental Protection Agency reports some 34 million tons of food waste was generated in 2010, up from 12 million tons in 1960, replacing paper as the single largest component of solid waste in our landfills.

We Eat What We See

New trends in refrigeration design may further fuel the urge to snack.

Glass door refrigerators, for example, including the BI-30UG by Sub-Zero/Wolf, smaller dorm-sized versions and even wine refrigerators, give homeowners a visual reminder of what’s available without even having to open the door.

“We eat what we see,” said Young.

So-called “smart” refrigerators, such as those sold byLGand Samsung, which enable online grocery shopping directly from the refrigerator’s LCD panel or Smartphone, and utilize sensor technology to track when perishable items are close to expiration, may also enable overbuying and, thus, overeating, said Wilk.

The manufacturers, however, note such technology can encourage better eating habits by using applications that suggest healthful recipes based on items already in the fridge.

They also maintain smart technology reduces food waste by eliminating redundant purchases by shoppers who forget which ingredients they have at home.

To be sure, a host of environmental factors have contributed to the obesity crisis in the U.S.

Among them: walk-in pantries that can stock a minivan shipment of Costco goods; restaurant portions that have doubled in a generation; bigger snack and soft drink packaging; and fast food “value meals” that distort perception of portion size.

A 2006 study by Popkin also concluded that frequency of eating (snacking between meals) is largely responsible for the average increase in calorie consumption since 1977.

But the size and quantity of refrigerators in our homes, which grows in lockstep with our nation’s waistline, contributes to portion distortion as well.

Hurried homeowners, who favor soft drinks and frozen entrees over fresh fruit and veggies, are no longer limited by space constraints.