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Portion Distortion: Super-sized Servings Widen Waistlines

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WACO, Texas -- If a little is good, then a lot must be better right, right?

Well, if you don't mind a larger waistline, the answer is yes. Recent studies show that the super-sizing of meal servings over the last few decades has Americans eating anywhere from two to five times more per serving than in the past.

Increasing portion sizes, nutrition experts say, are a key reason the number of obese Americans and the health problems brought by extra body weight are reaching epidemic proportions.

"Clearly, the problem is that Americans are eating too much food," said Barry Popkin, professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina schools of public health and medicine, who co-authored one of the studies. "The problem is the combination of a rapid increase in eating at fast-food establishments, an increase in selected foods such as cheeseburgers and soft drinks and the portion sizes we report in this new study."

Popkin's study, which focused on three national surveys on food consumption, found that between 1977 and 1998, the average portion size increased for many popular foods _ salty snacks, desserts, soft drinks, fruit drinks, French fries, hamburgers, cheeseburgers and Mexican food. A separate UNC study found that from 1977 to 1996, snack eating increased more than 50 percent.

Big portions at home

David Grotto, a registered dietitian and spokesman for the American Dietetic Association, said restaurant portions haven't changed as much as people's eating habits.

"A generation ago, dining out was pretty much limited to special occasions," Grotto said. "Then over time, the frequency of eating out increased and going to restaurants became part of Americana, especially in urban areas."

Increased portion sizes have carried over from fast-food establishments and restaurants into the home, concluded another recent study by Lisa Young, assistant adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University.

Young's study found that recipes and food packages from decades past sport bigger portions today with the same ingredients. For example, a brownie recipe from a 1975 cookbook, "Joy of Cooking," yielded 30 servings. That same recipe today yields only 16 servings.

Also, a 1984 recipe for Toll House cookies yielded 100 servings, whereas today the same recipe yields only 60.

What's a portion?

Grotto said the lines have blurred between recommended serving sizes based on the USDA's food-guide pyramid and portion sizes, and people often confuse the two.

"A portion is defined as whatever you consider a reasonable amount of a specific food to eat during one meal," Grotto said. "The ADA defines a serving size as those recommended in the food pyramid."

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute compared portion sizes of several popular foods from 20 years ago and today and the corresponding extra calories. For example, a bagel 20 years ago was 3 inches in diameter and contained 140 calories. Today's 6-inch bagels contain 350 calories. To burn those extra 210 calories, the institute reported that a 130-pound person would have to rake leaves for 50 minutes.

In another example, a restaurant portion of spaghetti with sauce and three small meatballs 20 years ago contained 500 calories. Today's portion contained twice as much spaghetti, three large meatballs and 1,025 calories. According to the institute, it would take 2 hours and 35 minutes of housecleaning to burn the extra 525 calories.

Stephanie Glenn, a registered dietitian at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco, said there are simple steps one can take when eating out to offset larger portions. She recommended ordering off the lunch menu, if possible, or sharing a meal if dining with someone. Both methods save money and result in smaller portions, she said.

"The problem is people forget what a normal-looking portion is when they eat out," she said. "They need to be able to look at portions and eat a normal serving and take the rest home."

Visual cues

Glenn said there are easy-to-follow "eyeball" guidelines diners can use to regulate portion intake by converting them to recommended serving sizes: A fist, for example, is about the same size as 8 ounces of a beverage.

An open palm is roughly the size of 3 ounces of cooked meat. A cupped hand is approximately one-half cup of pasta, rice, vegetables or fruit. Two thumbs held together would be similar in size to a tablespoon of butter or salad dressing.

"When it comes to the all-you-can-eat buffet, you just have to discipline yourself to create a healthy meal," Glenn said. "That's not, however, why most people go to places that have buffets."

Restaurants' role

Grotto said he took part in a presentation by ADA dietitians to the National Restaurant Association convention to discuss ways to educate patrons on portion control. He said the restaurant owners were receptive to most of the suggestions presented.

One recommendation was for restaurants to serve the same portion sizes but offer the option to wrap half the meal up for take home before delivering it to the table. Another idea was to serve larger portions of vegetables while shrinking portions of food with more calories. Making the bread basket optional or by request instead of automatically putting it on the table when patrons arrived was another suggestion to curb caloric intake.

Obesity is a major cause of early death in the United States, with 300,000 deaths each year related to an increasingly overweight population, Grotto said.

"The restaurant owners seemed to understand that helping people eat better is in their best business interests in the long run," Grotto said. "They certainly understood when we pointed out that sick and dead people don't go out to eat."

John Allen writes for the Waco Tribune-Herald. E-mail:

Cox News Service

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