May 29, 2000 -- I'm hungry but on a deadline, so to save time I head for the McDonald's drive-through where I plan to order the grilled chicken sandwich, hold the mayo -- just 300 calories and 5 grams of fat. Making my way to the pick-up window, I drive past large illustrated menus of burgers, fries, milk shakes, and that yummy new yogurt parfait.
But I'd expect these temptations from Mickey D's. The truth is, temptations like that yogurt-with-granola goody aren't the only foods calling my name these days. It seems that once I set foot outside my door (or turn on the television), everyone is telling me to "Eat! Eat! Eat!"
At the mall with my son, I stop at the food-court bakery for a cup of coffee, and he points out the "Buy three cookies, get one free" sign. At dinner with my brother, the waitress hears he is "starving" and offers up potato-skin appetizers dripping in cheese. She waves dessert menus in our faces twice. My grocery store always has someone handing out food samples.
It's frustrating. After overcoming a chubby childhood, I've managed to hold down my weight through a dull but successful strategy of watching my food intake and exercising. But lately I feel like I am losing the tug-of-war between what I know is the right stuff to eat and what some nutritionists call the "pressure to eat."
Yes, It Really Is a Plot
It's not my imagination. The world is trying to make us all fat. It's not as if we're being encouraged to eat our peas and carrots, says Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Unfortunately, we are constantly being pressured to eat unhealthy foods."
Every year, the food industry forks over about $11 billion for advertising and another $22 billion on trade shows and other promotions, according to a report on obesity in the January-February 2000 issue of Public Health Reports. In 1998, promotion costs for popular candy bars ranged from $10 to $50 million, says Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, professor and chair of the department of nutrition and food studies at New York University, who co-authored the article. That same year, McDonald's spent more than a billion dollars for promotion.
With an annual public campaign budget of just $1 million, it's hard for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other governmental agencies to compete, Nestle says. And even then, people complain that the amount is wasteful, especially when Americans keep putting on the pounds, despite the public health messages.
So why aren't there ads coaxing us to enjoy, say, an apple or a peach? Produce growers often view each other as competitors, Nestle says. "And they don't see the value of generic advertising and don't have the same kind of money [as the producers of fast foods and snack foods]. Plain fruits and vegetables are not very profitable compared to processed foods."
Even worse, the messages we get about eating from media and society are often mixed, says Diane Quagliani, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and a Chicago dietitian. Magazines brim with food ads but also include diet articles -- driven by ad budgets and their readers' desire to lose weight.
"We are diet-focused," she says, "yet getting fatter and fatter." From 1991 to 1998, the percentage of obese adults -- defined as those with a body mass index of 30 or higher -- rose from 12% to nearly 18%, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Other Side
Those who cater to our hunger deny that there's a plot afoot to make us overeat. ''Our menu is driven by our customers,'' says Lisa Howard, a spokeswoman for McDonald's Corporation. ''We find out what our customers want through focus groups and customer research.''
It's possible, she points out, to have a low-fat, reasonably low-calorie meal at McDonald's if you pick and choose wisely. To help customers do that, McDonald's offers a nutritional chart that lists its menu items with the nutritional information for each item, including the amount of calories, fat grams, salt, cholesterol, and fiber in a serving.
The "Super-Size" Mentality
But what of the super-sized portions? On a recent trip to the grocery store, Quagliani recently spied the biggest bag of potato chips she had ever seen. So, what's the harm in buying the large size, you say? After all, it's the economical approach.
It's also the route to tipping the scales, says Brian Wansink, PhD, professor of food psychology and marketing and the director of the Food and Brand Lab at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. Buy the big bag of nearly anything, he has found in his studies, and you will eat more at a sitting. "Once you open it, there's no real need to stop," he says. Wansink has found that larger package size can increase consumption up to 43%.
In restaurants, portion sizes are getting bigger and bigger. Food is a small part of overall operating costs, compared to labor and other expenses, Nestle says. So why not super-size those meals to attract the diners who want to get the most for their money -- which is everyone. At the movie theater, buttered popcorn comes in bigger and bigger tubs. And research shows that it's usually just one person emptying a tub, Nestle says.
Filtering the Messages of Excess
Giant-sized servings and seductive food messages aren't going to stop any time soon. So, how to cope? "Half the battle is awareness," Quagliani says. When eyeing those super-sized packages, she suggests that you ask yourself "Do I really need all that food?"
There's nothing wrong with buying the economy size of a food item, especially if it helps you to live within a budget. But once you get home, repackage the food into smaller containers, to avoid overeating.
You can win half the battle, however, if you don't put the item in your shopping cart in the first place. Fight those signs that suggest buying 12 candy bars and freezing them, and reach only for the items on your list, which should include the needed quantities, Wansink says.
And be wary of grocery-store design that steers you away from the produce section and toward foods that may be less crucial or healthy, says John La Puma, MD, a Chicago-area physician who heads the CHEF Clinic (Cooking, Healthy Eating, and Fitness), a research project and community-based healthful lifestyle program.
LaPuma heads straight for the produce section and chooses fruits and vegetables. Then he leaves his cart there and roams the store to collect other food he needs. With no cart close by, he says, he is much less likely to pick up impulse items because he would have to carry around sometimes awkward and bulky packages.
No matter what tactic you use, common sense can help, too. Buy and eat too much super-sized anything and it's bound to super-size you.