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Bigger is Not Better When it Comes to Food
January 24, 2003
Trevor Butterworth

For the past year the media has been saturated with complaints that restaurants - especially fast food outlets - have been feeding people ever-increasing portions of food. The trend has been blamed on corresponding increases in girth that have inflated Americans to the point of being "the fattest people on the face of the earth (save for the inhabitants of a few South Sea islands)," according to Greg Critser's new book, "Fat Land."

Alas, the bad news is that more is not less. According to new research reported in the January 23 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, average portion sizes and energy intake have increased for a wide variety of foods that weren't especially healthy to begin with - chips, burgers, fries, desserts, Mexican food and soda. The only exception was pizza, which is now consumed in smaller servings.

"The size of the increases are substantial," explain researchers Samara Joy Nielsen, and Barry M. Popkin. "Since an added 10kcal [kilocalories] per day of unexpended energy is equivalent to an extra pound (0.45kg) of weight per year, it is easy to see the potential impact of large portion sizes."

The authors found that a soft drink serving, on average, provided 49kcal more in 1998 than it did in 1977. (Some super-gulp drink cups are the nearest thing to cold-fusion, capable of unleashing up to 800 calories, depending on the amount of ice.) A portion of French fries grew, on average, by 68kcal, and Mexican food by an astonishing 133kcal.

Even more troubling say the authors, is that the actual portion sizes being consumed are probably larger than those reported, given that the overweight tend to underestimate how much they actually eat.

And this segues into one of their most interesting findings, which is that portion sizes have not only dramatically increased in fast food restaurants, but inside the home as well.

This may signal a profound change in cultural habit that will be a lot harder to break. Against the fast food establishments and the dining room table, normal restaurants were positively abstemious, serving up the smallest portion sizes. (Although this might be negated by cooking methods, such as deep frying in batter, and desserts like bread pudding that can clog up a three-course meal with 7000 calories.)

The multi billion dollar question is whether all these super sized meals directly add up to a jump in the obesity rate from a little over one person in ten in 1971 to one in three in 1999. As Steven Anderson, President of the National Restaurant Association pointed out in the Washington Post letters page (1/13/03), there is more than mere food at play in the lifestyles of the overweight.

For starters, people - and particularly children - now lead more sedentary lives. Whereas 80 percent of children participated in daily physical education programs in 1969, only 20 percent do so today. Worse, today's kids gobble up immense amounts of time watching TV (according to the National Institutes for Health, a whopping 15,000 to 18,000 hours by the time they reach the age of 17). And then there are such immobile pursuits as the computer and game consoles to be factored into the finding that one in four children under 19 being overweight.

Still, even taking into account chronic couch-potatoism, dietary habits clearly have to improve. Change may already be on the menu with the market slowly turning its back on burgers and fries to embrace healthier and more exotic food. Indeed, McDonalds, which is trading near a seven year low after a decline in global sales, is practically banking on it: Earlier this year the company bought a 33 percent stake in the hit British gourmet sandwich chain Pret a Manger, which opened its first branches in New York City late last year.

But while there are signs of a budding consumer revolution in the food business, it may take years for it to change America's culture of fast-food. The ubiquitous hamburger made its first appearance in the 1850s, thanks to German immigrants, as did hot dogs - first hawked in Chicago as "dachshund sausages red hot" in the 1890s (a description, which if true, would have been a step up in quality on what they really contained). Pizza arrived at the turn of the century, though it didn't really take off until American soldiers returned from Italy after World War II. And Subway, which now has more franchises in the U.S. than McDonalds, owes its name to the submarines built in Groton, Connecticut.

America was built on fast food. And that relationship turned into a love affair when franchises like McDonalds delivered a revolution in the 1950s and 1960s. It's hard now to remember that the Golden Arches spelled a quantum leap forward in food quality, service, cleanliness and convenience. And it's also easy to forget that this was an era when conventional wisdom looked on dietary fat as a good friend. When that message changed, the market changed too. From the late 1970s onwards, America began to embrace Red Lobster, Chicken McNuggets and Fahitas as healthier alternatives to fat-marbled beef. For dessert, frozen yogurt duked it out with low fat ice cream. Jared S. Fogle became a national celebrity by going from 425lbs to 190lbs on a diet that, at first, consisted exclusively of Subway low fat sandwiches.

As Timothy K. Smith notes in February 3 issue of Fortune magazine, "cultures do evolve. Perhaps a decade from now this health calamity will have turned us all into mindful epicures. But at the moment we're on our own, and we're going to have to pay attention."

It's clear that the trend towards low fat food begun in the 1970s has stalled in the face of super sizing. While the long-term solution to America's obesity crisis lies in eating more fresh food and taking more exercise, Nielsen and Popkin argue that people can take quick action by eating smaller portions right now. Otherwise our just desserts may turn out to bite more than we can chew.



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