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Restaurants and takeout fuel overeating epidemic

Restaurant pizza. Large size leads to overeating
September 20, 2018
Lily Moran

Too many Americans are too big these days. Let’s not mince words—they’re fat, and getting fatter. This is not a momentary thing. It’s been trending for decades. The average American man? Today, just under 5’10” tall and 196 pounds—up 15 pounds from 20 years ago. The average American woman? Just under 5’4″ and 169 pounds, up 17 pounds from 152 in 1994. Is this trend coming for us? Yes, but we can escape, and must.

Why this trend is extremely dangerous

Our entire society is being transformed. Who would have thought Americans now shop for extra-extra-extra-large clothing, sit in supersize movie seats, pay a fee for bigger airline seats—and are even laid to rest in jumbo coffins?

Our Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that, as of 2016, 40 percent of US adults and 19 percent of youth were obese.

It’s no surprise that with rising obesity comes growing rates of associated chronic disease—diabetes, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome. You know—the ones that we used to think of as a symptom of old age, but now realize are diseases of too much stress, too much food, and too little exercise.

Something’s gone way, way wrong. There’s never been more media focus on healthy habits, so shouldn’t we be getting healthier, rather than sicker?

At the mercy of not-home cooking

It might seem an unusual place to find an answer, but let’s look at what amounts to a sea change in Americans’ dining habits. Not in what we eat, a monumentally important topic unto itself, but in where we eat and source what we eat. This is huge.

We’re cooking less at home, eating away from home and buying food prepared outside the home more than ever before.

Indeed, in 2015, for the first time since health trends have been monitored, Americans spent more money on non-home cooking than they did on groceries—more than half of our food dollars.

And that’s leading us to chow down more than we would if we were home.

The incredible expanding dinner plate

Research has found that people typically eat 20 to 40 percent more calories in restaurants, and with delivered or drive-through or take-away meals, than what they’d eat if they cooked at home.

A recent study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics analyzed more than 360 dinner entrees at 123 non-chain restaurants in San Francisco, Boston, and Little Rock between 2011 and 2014.

The average restaurant dish contained 1,200 calories—more than half of the 2,000 (for women) or 2,500 (for men) calories recommended for moderately active folks in an entire day.

And that’s just one meal. Two still to go.

What’s going on here?

Portion sizes have more than doubled

The average restaurant meal today is more than four times the size of typical 1950s fare, according to the CDC.

Restaurant Portion Size Increase 1950s–Today

Year 1950(s) Today
Fries 2.4 oz 6.7 oz
Burger 3.9 ox 12 oz
Soda 7 oz 42 oz

How did this happen? Did millions of restaurant-goers complain the portion sizes were too small? That seems improbable.

Did research show that people who used to happily down a regular MacDonald’s burger were ordering more Big Macs instead, with double the beef, signaling a trend toward bigger portions?

Or is it just that people equate more with better?

That last reason rings most true. Especially because restaurants seem to have knowingly contributed to their customers eating well beyond the nutritional call of duty. In many cases, they’ve actually replaced small plates with bigger ones.


A normal dinner plate today is 11 inches in diameter. In the 1950s, normal was 9 inches. Sounds like not a big increase—but if that bigger plate holds just a half-dozen additional bites of a 1,200 calorie dish, that’s surely an additional 200 or so calories.

It only follows that the bun that holds today’s fast food burger has also been supersized.

Of course, no one’s forcing us to, but “clean up your plate” and “don’t waste food” are drilled into us, and we comply, often unknowingly. And boom! Up goes the calorie count.

And the consequence is that the average American’s total caloric intake grew from 2,109 calories in 1970 to 2,568 calories in 2010.

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As Pew Research put it, that’s “the equivalent of an extra steak sandwich every day.”

As one writer put it, “It’s easy to become obese in America.”

Sugar shock—America’s drinking problem

According to the most recent data, Americans guzzle more soft drinks per capita than any other country. That’s a huge contributor to how much more sugar we consume than not long ago.

Back in 1977, for example, the average adult got 228 calories per day from sugar in food and drinks. By 2010, it was up to 300 calories a day. Added sugar consumption increased as much as 20 percent among kids.

Now add in what’s hiding in plain sight in an “American” breakfast—sugary cereals, donuts, artificial maple or other syrups, jellies and jams. Even the presumed healthy yogurts, if they have flavoring added, like fruit, vanilla, chocolate, coconut, are built on a foundation of sugar. Add it all up and you get a dessert in disguise.

With dreadful results.

Let’s sum it up with the director of the National Center for Weight and Wellness, who is also a faculty member at both Johns Hopkins and George Washington University.

“The food environment is a strong predictor of how we eat,” says Scott Kahan, “And in America, the unhealthiest foods are the tastiest foods, the cheapest foods, the largest-portion foods, the most available foods, the most fun foods.”

How the food environment could support healthful eating instead

It could be as simple as taking a carefully chosen word or two out of some food names: Big, as in Big Mac, Big Gulp, Big Bite, Bob’s Big Boy; Mighty , as in the Mighty Mo of Hot Shoppes lore.;Whopper; Double-Double In-N-Out; and remember the shameless offer at American fast food chains—would you like to Supersize that?

Among the enlightened and concerned in government and the food industry, solutions abound.

Raise taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages and other unhealthy foods and drinks. Even with conclusive evidence that raising taxes on tobacco has been a resounding success, it was only in 2014 that we saw the first tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. Thank you, Mexico.

But talk about an idea whose time has come. Despite every possible flavor of resistance, there are now similar taxes in India, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. Also planting the tax flag are South Africa, Britain, Ireland, and some US cities.

For an idea that threatens Big Food to spread so quickly must mean the argument for these taxes is compelling. Sweetened beverages are the single largest contributor to the obesity epidemic, scientists say, and that epidemic exacts a huge toll, in both health problems and medical costs.

Several US cities and several countries are trying out similar taxes on junk foods, as well. Research to date appears to show it’s working.

Improve warning labels and symbols on unhealthy foods. Research makes it clear that too many people just can’t understand today’s food labels, helpful though they are to chemists and math geniuses.

And very few contain requirements that a food product call out its “nutrients of concern,” like added sugar. So several countries have been experimenting with easier-to-understand warning labels that might rightfully persuade people to avoid unhealthy ingredients.

Lower the high prices of healthy foods, especially the fresh fruits and vegetables that play such a vital role in healthy nutrition.

Think of the one-two punch we’d get when taxes dissuade people away from junk food, while prices of good food decline. So hats off to the various government and nonprofit players working to offer fruit and vegetable subsidies for the poor. There are even experimental programs that let doctors give vouchers to patients who have food access problems, whether financial or geographical—you’ve heard of food deserts? This “prescription-based” model hammers home the medical importance of diet in health.

Give a healthy diet a chance to shine by using the bad-food industry’s own tactics. Put beauty shots of sexy fruits, vegetables, and the people who love them up on billboards and in advertising, right alongside Big Food’s pictures of greasy hamburgers and candy, with their truly stunning media firepower—as in Beyoncé’s $50 million payday to make Pepsi sexy, and Justin Timberlake’s estimated $6 million to sing the McDonald’s theme song, “I’m lovin’ it.”

Look, this column isn’t about morality, but, please, think what those millions that these stars don’t need could do for the millions who can’t afford, or even find, decent, healthy food to put on the family table.

So bravo and thank you to celebrities who are working with nonprofit organizations and grocery stores to use their gifts to give back instead of taking more. There’s data that shows these good-guy campaigns can work.

What can you do?

Some simple ground rules to get your blood test results exactly where you want them to be.

  • Make your own meals as often as you can. And make them with as many fruits and vegetables as possible. You’ll quickly find that getting more fruits and veggies into your diet is simple. Just get more fruits and veggies into your diet.
  • Get a vegetarian cookbook or an online recipe source. You’ll be delighted at the huge range of delicious, satisfying, healthy options.
  • Know what you’re getting when you let someone else cook your meals. You’ve just seen how “getting a lot for your money” often means getting too much for your health. Look for meal sources that have clear, understandable ingredient lists, including calorie counts.
  • Beware added sugar. Shun it like the plague that it is, whether in your own shopping and consumption, or from a restaurant or delivery menu.
  • If you have a chance to vote in an election for more food label transparency, taxes on bad food, or subsidies for good food, vote yes.

Here’s to happy, healthy dining!


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