Big, Bigger, SUPERBIG

Article excerpt

Supersize that lunch for 39 cents extra. Americans like `value' in food portions -- and it shows. More than half of American adults are overweight, as are a quarter of all American kids.

It seems only the fast-food lunch might tip the scales. But 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. A typical bowl of pasta is equivalent to an entire day's recommendation of breads and cereals as measured by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's, or USDPA'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 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.

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, 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 foodpyramid 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," 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, 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 -- people tend to underestimate those items, too.

Another size perception run amok is meat portions, adds Miller-Kovach. 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-, 24- and even 32-ounce steaks on a restaurant menu. 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. …