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March 26, 2019

Regular-size yourself: Portion sizes keep growing; consumers must fight back

March 14, 2019
McDonald’s Big Mac value meal. (EllenMoran / Getty Images)

New research from Boston University and Tufts found that fast-food portions continue to expand despite pleas to the industry to sell meals in more reasonable portions.

The problem isn’t just that portions have ballooned in size, contributing to obesity and other health issues, but that we as consumers have been conditioned to think these oversized meals are normal. In fact, if given what nutritionists would consider a realistic portion, many people balk.

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I began tracking changes in portion sizes 25 years ago, after the Nutrition Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a large national dietary intake survey, found that the average adult gained 8 pounds in just one decade. I weighed foods available for immediate consumption from popular take-out establishments, fast-food outlets and chain restaurants and compared them to the sizes sold in previous generations. My research found that many fast-food food portions were two to five times larger than they were in the past.

Waistlines have grown as well. Obesity rates have soared over the last 50 years, increasing from 13-40% since the early 1960s.

When McDonald’s first opened in the 1950s, their one-size-fits-all soda was 7 ounces — less than half the size of today’s small soda at 16 ounces (the large is close to a quart). These types of increases were happening across the food industry.

Shortly after the movie “Super Size Me” debuted in 2004, the company removed its 42-ounce soda from the menu but in the same sweep introduced larger portions, including, most recently, the Grand Big Mac, a larger Big Mac with 800 calories.

McDonald’s is not the only culprit. Pick a chain, almost any chain, and the story is the same.

Fast food has worked hard to introduce healthy meals, but most sound healthier than they are. And many, as the Boston University and Tufts researchers documented, are packed with sodium. While some meals might be healthy, many use marketing descriptors that deceive us — all of which leads us to think it’s okay to eat more.

And that’s how many of us, now conditioned to eat more, think it should be.

To break the conditioning, we can’t wait for corporations to tell us how much food is enough. As consumers, we need to take matters into our own hands by understanding what realistic portion sizes look like.

An easy visual guide is to fill half your plate with fruits and nonstarchy vegetables, one quarter with protein (legumes, fish, poultry, meat), and the last quarter with a healthy starch such as brown rice or quinoa. At a fast-food restaurant, this might mean ordering a small order of french fries, single hamburger and side salad. Forgo the soda for a water.

Despite what many people want to believe, the main ingredient for long-term weight loss is not a single nutrient such as carbohydrates or proteins or fat but the fact that dieters change their relationship with food — and that includes how they view portion sizes.

Successful dieters are mindful when eating and pay attention to the portions on their plate. Interestingly, most of them eat the bulk of their meals at home and with family, not at fast-food restaurants.

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Perhaps even more interesting is that the percentage of adults who frequent fast-food joints is similar to the percentage of obese adults: 37% versus about 40%, respectively.

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Those of us who eat fast food regularly have unwittingly given control of our health to companies that are not interested in our well-being and may never be. As girth increases and obesity and related diseases continue to rise, I hope that this study, which confirms my research, will be a call to the fast-food industry to scale back.

Until that happens, we can all just eat a little bit less.

Young is an adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University.

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