- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 20, 2000

Go ahead, grab a muffin for breakfast. Supersize that lunch for 39 cents extra. For dinner, how about a bowl of pasta with plain marinara sauce?
It seems only the fast-food lunch might tip the scales, right? Wrong. Americans, especially those who eat out often, are likely to be getting more calories, fat and carbohydrates than they realize.
That muffin may pack 600 calories; the supersize fries probably add 1,000 calories. The typical bowl of pasta is about three cups, adding up to an entire day's recommendation of breads and cereals as measured by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food pyramid.
In this era of big cars, big houses and big warehouse stores, people are getting big portions and becoming bigger themselves, says New York University nutrition and food studies professor Lisa Young.
"That has become the mentality of Americans," says Ms. Young, who studies food portion sizes. "I first noticed this in the 1980s. As the economy got better, the portions got bigger. It was also in the 1980s that we saw obesity rise. We might think we are eating healthy, but really we may be getting three times the calories we think we are."
Indeed, portion sizes might be partly to blame as obesity has become what U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher calls "an epidemic." More than 97 million Americans about 55 percent of the adult population are at least 30 pounds overweight, about a third more people than two decades ago. Nearly 25 percent of American children double the number from 30 years ago are overweight.

Eyeing not easy

Some weight-loss-savvy Americans may think they know the calorie and fat-gram content of every food that crosses their lips, but often they are way off in their estimate, Ms. Young says.
In a 1998 study, she asked 100 of her students to choose food items they considered to be "medium-sized." Medium-sized, according to the USDA, is
about a 2-ounce bagel, a 1 1/2-ounce muffin, a half-ounce cookie or a 4-ounce baked potato.
Ninety percent of the bagels selected averaged about 4 ounces, or twice as large as recommended. All of the muffins were greater than 1 1/2 ounces and were as much as three times larger. The average cookie chosen was twice as large as the food pyramid guideline. All of the baked potatoes chosen were larger than the standard, averaging about 2 1/2 ounces heavier than the recommended 4-ounce size.
"A wide variation existed in what students' perception of medium was," Ms. Young says. "Medium means different things to different people."
Karen Miller-Kovach, chief scientist for Weight Watchers International, says Weight Watchers participants usually are surprised when they begin visually "measuring" their food.
"We hear over and over again the amazement at what is considered a normal portion," she says. "We recommend people measure food once or twice to get used to what that looks like."
To avoid becoming a slave to a food scale, Ms. Miller-Kovach recommends making a visual record of what a portion is. Measure the recommended half-cup to cup of cold cereal into the same bowl a few times, and then you will know what it looks like, she says. Do the same with 6 ounces of fruit juice and a half-cup of pasta, she says, adding that people tend to underestimate those items.
Another size perception run amok is meat portions, Ms. Miller-Kovach says. A portion of meat as defined by the USDA is 3 ounces, about the size of a deck of cards or the palm of a hand. It's common to find 8-ounce chicken breasts and 12- and 24-, even 32-ounce, steaks on a restaurant menu, she says.

Blame it on restaurants?

The perception problem can be blamed, in part, on the inflated portion sizes being served at most restaurants, Ms. Young and Ms. Miller-Kovach say. Americans are eating out more often than in the past, seeing bigger portions set in front of them and, no doubt, consuming bigger portions than necessary.
In 1978, Americans ate 6 percent of their meals out and consumed an average of 1,876 calories a day. By 1995, the most recent year for which USDA statistics are available, those numbers had ballooned to 20 percent of meals eaten in restaurants and an average of 2,043 calories consumed daily.
"The American restaurant industry has learned that value-sized portions bring in customers," Ms. Miller-Kovach says. "Offering more food is easier and cheaper than bringing in a better-trained staff or upgrading the decor. So instead of a server serving four tables, he waits on six and gives the table a big bread basket to eat so they won't be so hungry while they wait."
Nutritionists find the overgrowth of restaurant portions particularly troubling at fast-food restaurants, family-style chain restaurants and steakhouses. However, diners today appreciate the value they are getting whether it is a 6-ounce portion of french fries or an $8.99 salad that can feed a family of four.
For usually less than 50 cents, one can increase a reasonable fast-food order of a hamburger, 2 ounces of fries and a 6-ounce soft drink (about 627 calories and 19 grams of fat) to the biggest hamburger, a 32-ounce drink and oversized fries (about 1,800 calories and 84 grams of fat).
"People want value," Ms. Young says. "We are driven by it, and if we think we are getting a good value, we'll go back. But if you are brought a bigger portion, you are going to eat more than you would if you were served a smaller portion and finished it. Even with larger portions, people feel virtuous that they didn't eat the whole thing."
Kristin Nolt, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association, says restaurants are only giving people what they want.
"Customers want choice and flexibility," she says. "We know that 43 percent of consumers sometimes choose a larger portion so they can take leftovers home. People like to point fingers [about large portions] at restaurants, but we are primarily about choice. If you don't want such a big portion, you can order an appetizer for your entree. This is not just about food. It is the American mentality now that more is better."

So is smaller better?

It always helps to pay attention to what you are eating, not just how much you are eating.
That is the advice of Dr. Howard M. Shapiro, author of "Dr. Shapiro's Picture Perfect Weight Loss." In his book, Dr. Shapiro, a New York diet physician, compares pictures of portions of certain foods, illustrating that for roughly the same amount of calories one can have a snack or a banquet.
For instance, a 5-ounce portion of Chex snack mix seems like a reasonable amount until you realize it packs 820 calories, about the same as in a 10-ounce loaf of French bread. A 9-ounce scone has about 930 calories, roughly the equivalent of 14 slices of raisin bread with four tablespoons of low-sugar fruit spread, Dr. Shapiro points out.
One half of a plain bagel (about 1 1/2 ounces) is 140 calories, or about the same as in a ham sandwich on light bread with lettuce, tomato, mustard and pickle. For the 80 calories in one small chicken nugget, one could instead have a big (1 1/4 cup) bowl of vegetable lentil soup.
Or how about a fat-free muffin, a bit oversized at 9 ounces (720 calories)? For the same calorie haul, one could eat a 2-pound pineapple, half a cantaloupe, half a kiwi fruit, half a papaya, 5 ounces of grapes, two pears and two whole-wheat rolls.
Dr. Shapiro calls his method "food awareness training." Knowing what a portion looks like and how it compares nutritionally to other foods with the same amount of calories will train a would-be dieter to make better choices, he writes.
"Food awareness training begins when you see your food choices," he adds. "You don't have to count calories. Instead, you can think of a picture you saw and consider how much you can eat for the same amount of calories."

Changing the definitions

After extensively studying common portion sizes in relation to the USDA recommendations, Ms. Young has suggested that the USDA consider re-evaluating its definitions of standard serving sizes and update the food pyramid to reflect the current sizes of popular foods.
But that would only give Americans license to eat more, says Mary Beth Schutheis, a spokeswoman for the USDA.
The USDA recently released its 2000 dietary guidelines, which are unchanged from the 1995 recommendations. The guidelines are updated every five years.
"Clearly, obesity is an epidemic," Ms. Schutheis says. "And we have seen an awful lot of interest in the topic of portion sizes. But the food pyramid is based on a preponderance of scientific evidence. There could have been a change in 2000, but there wasn't. Perhaps we will look at the issue again in 2005."

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