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Super-Size Portion Causing U.S. Distortion

Study links large servings of food to obesity epidemic in America

TUESDAY, Feb. 19, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- If Americans want to blame their expanding waistlines on something other than their lack of willpower, new research now finds fault with huge cookies, bulky bagels and massive muffins.

"People are eating twice as much as 20 years ago without even realizing it," says Lisa Young, co-author of a new study on the spike in U.S. serving sizes. "Bigger portions translate into more calories."

Young measured the portion sizes of food served at family-style restaurants, fast-food joints and grocery stores. She then compared those sizes to serving sizes set by the U.S. government decades ago.

With the exception of sliced white bread, Young found the typical portions of every type of food studied exceeded the official government serving size. The average cookie was seven times the recommended serving size, while cooked pasta, muffins, steaks and bagels were also much larger.

Young examined original portion sizes by looking at trade journals, professional journals, menu collections, cookbooks and other sources. Hamburgers, sodas and french fries all come in sizes that are two to five times larger than the original ones, Young says. In the 1950s, McDonalds offered only one size of french fries, which would be considered "small" by today's standards.

Even today's super-size orders are larger than they were just three years ago, the study found. A "large" fry at McDonalds is the same size as a "super-size" was in 1998; the new "super-size" weighs almost an ounce more than it once did.

Often, the large portions appear to be better deals from a financial point of view, Young says. A 32-ounce Big Gulp at 7-Eleven costs 2.7 cents an ounce, compared to 5 cents an ounce for a 16-ounce drink, she says.

The troubling news is that increasing portion sizes appear to be directly related to the obesity epidemic in this country, Young reports. Americans aren't exercising more or less than before, so increased food intake probably explains why we are becoming so fat, she says.

The findings appear in the February issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Experts estimate that more than half the U.S. population is overweight or obese.

The trend toward larger portions will be hard to stop, adds Althea Zanecosky, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

"Lots of times in restaurants, consumers feel like they're not getting enough for their money, so they give them these huge portions," she adds.

Education is the key to better health, she says: "People need to look at their favorite foods and see what a serving is. You have to know what a reasonable amount is."

Young agrees, and urges consumers to take part of their restaurant meals home.

"Don't eat the whole thing. Become aware," she says. "You have to have strategies. If you eat half, it's fine; take the rest home. Don't just look at what you're given as acceptable."

What To Do

The American Dietetic Association offers tips on how to make sense of portion sizes.

Learn more about portion sizes from Oregon State University.

SOURCES: Interviews with Lisa Young, Ph.D., R.D., adjunct assistant professor, nutritional consultant, New York University, New York City; Althea Zanecosky, R.D., spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association, Philadelphia; February 2002 American Journal of Public Health
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