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'Clean Your Plate' Tradition Coming Back To Bite Us USAToday

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Today's huge portions have rendered obsolete the old adage to clean your plate, nutrition researchers say.

The message emerged during World War I to encourage people to conserve food when there was a limited supply. ''But the concept is outdated now because many portions, especially those served at restaurants, are so excessive,'' says nutritionist Melanie Polk of the American Institute for Cancer Research, a non-profit group that funds research on the relationship between and diet and cancer.

A poll of 1,011 adults, released by the group this summer, revealed:

* 69% of people say they finish restaurant entrées all or most of the time.

* Among those who regularly finish their entrées, 60% say the portions are just right; 30% would have been satisfied with less; and 10% would have eaten more.

* Among those who usually leave some of their entrées, 67% say portions are too big.

* 40% say they ordered an appetizer as an entrée over a month of eating out; 33% split an entrée between two people; and 12% ordered half-portions.

After the poll results came in, Polk and colleagues studied the clean-plate tradition. They found that it continued after World War II when President Truman called on Americans to conserve food. That led to the formation of Clean Plate Clubs in many elementary schools, Polk says.

The message was often accompanied by another piece of sound advice, she says: ''Don't put more food on your plate than you will eat.''

But the latter message has been lost over the years. Several studies have shown that portions in the USA are bigger than ever and that when Americans are given bigger servings, they eat more.

This is contributing to Americans' weight problem: Almost 65% of adults in the USA are overweight or obese.

''It's amazing we are not fatter than we are, because portions are about twice as big as they were 20 years ago,'' says Lisa Young, a nutrition researcher at New York University who studies portion sizes. A restaurant serving of pasta is often three cups, about six servings, according to the government's Food Guide Pyramid. It used to be about 1 cups, she says.

Barbara Rolls, a nutrition researcher at Penn State, and colleagues have found that people eat more when they are served bigger portions. In one study, men and women were served meals and snacks for two days that had twice as many calories as standard-size servings. The women ate 500 and the men ate 800 more calories each day than they would have if they had eaten regular portions.

Part of the solution might rest in bringing the calories down in big portions by adding low-calorie foods like vegetables to them, Rolls says. For instance, more vegetables could be added to sandwiches, pasta dishes and casseroles.

''The trouble is we are confronted with bigger portions at many meals now,'' Rolls says. ''If the food keeps coming at you, you're going to keep eating, and that's bad news.''

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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