Popular Foods Growing With Waistlines

Even Hershey Bars, Beer Are Supersized Today

From the WebMD Archives

Jan. 31, 2003 -- It's not just fast-food chains that supersize servings for an already XL-sized nation. Other restaurants and food manufacturers also have it their way -- and are providing heftier-than-ever portions that exceed federal standards, as well as their own.

Typical marketplace portions for many popular foods, snacks, and beverages now exceed federal recommended standards by as much as eight times, shows a study in the February issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. What's more, these items are now typically manufactured in sizes up to five times bigger than when they were originally introduced.

For instance, today's typical bagel from a bagel shop is up to five times larger and has more calories than those originally introduced to the U.S. by Jewish émigrés. And it comprises up to six complete servings of the USDA Food Pyramid -- the entire minimum daily requirement in the bread/cereal/pasta category.

Meanwhile, the Hershey bar debuted in 1908 at 0.6 ounces; today, its smallest "single" bar size is twice as big, and it also comes in sizes up to eight times as large -- and that's outside of a movie theater. A bottle of Budweiser beer was seven ounces in 1976, but is now available in a bottle six times as large. And fast food restaurants? Their original sizes for burgers and drinks in the 1950s are lucky to be the "kiddie" offerings at some chains, joining revised and other products that are up to six times as large.

New York University nutritionists evaluated as many as 39 samples of nearly two dozen popular items. With the exception of one -- sliced white bread -- the typical marketplace portion size of every item studied was at least twice as much as the USDA portion standard for it.

"We selected the items on the basis of their popularity, and because they are among the biggest contributors of calories in the American diet -- although not necessarily the most fattening," says lead researcher Lisa R. Young, PhD, RD. "Based on this finding, I'd say that people need to start paying attention not to just what they eat, but also how much of it they eat."


But apparently, we can't get enough of these hefty helpings, which may explain why most Americans are consuming about 200 more calories each day than just a decade ago. In the average woman, 200 more daily calories than her body needs could lead to more than a pound of weight gain each month.

Just two months ago, Penn State scientists reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutritionthat most of the 51 normal and overweight people they studied couldn't judge an "appropriate" portion and continued to eat when given more food on their plate.

"The more you give them, the more they will eat," lead researcher Barbara Rolls, PhD, tells WebMD. "But it's not a plate-cleaning phenomenon; it's more subtle than that. The people we studied were not even aware that their portions had changed, although we doubled them in some cases. And they ended up with the same fullness, even when they ate more food. It is almost as though they adjusted their reaction to hunger and fullness."

None of this surprises American Dietetic Association spokesman Keith Ayoob, EdD, RD, dietitian at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. But it does worry him.

"Obesity is a disease of excess -- it doesn't matter if the excess comes from McDonald's or olive oil or skinless chicken breasts," he says. "It does seem easier to have those excesses in high-calorie foods than in carrots and broccoli. But it's not just fast-food chains that are supersizing everything. It's everywhere. So my take-home advice is take it home. Because if you eat out, at most places you're getting twice as much food as you should be eating."

And at home, where most people consume about 55% of their meals? Read the labels, count calories and don't use those big plates like most restaurants. "Obesity is a family issue, and today's obese kids learn their eating habits at home," Ayoob tells WebMD. "In fact, I read of one study that the rate of obesity in humans in now paralleling to the rate of obesity in their housepets. And you can't blame the dog's obesity on a genetic link."

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SOURCES: Journal of the American Dietetic Association, February 2003 • American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, December 2002 • Lisa R. Young, PhD, RD, adjunct assistant professor, Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, New York University • Barbara Rolls, PhD, Guthrie Chair of Nutrition, Pennsylvania State University College of Health and Human Development • Keith Ayoob, EdD, RD, associate professor of pediatrics, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York; spokesman for the American Dietetic Association.
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