Supersize Portions, Downsize Wallet?

Study: Some Food Bargains May Be Costly in the Long Run

From the WebMD Archives

May 30, 2006 -- Supersized food portions may not be a great financial deal in the long run, argue researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Rachel Close, BS, makes the case in a study done for her Master's degree in nutritional science. She calculated the financial costs flowing from supersizing a meal at unnamed fast-food restaurants.

Supersizing boosted calories from 927 to 1,324 for an extra 67 cents, the researchers write. But further calculations including gas, medical, and grocery bills shifted the bottom line in the opposite direction.

The study will appear in June's issue of the Journal of the American College of NutritionNutrition, states a University of Wisconsin-Madison news release. Dale Schoeller, PhD, of the university's nutritional sciences department, also worked on the study.

Value in the Long Run

Close and colleagues checked the restaurants' advertised price and calorie counts for supersized meals. The biggest difference was in fries and soft drinks, the researchers found.

At first glance, "it appears that for 73% more calories the consumer pays only an additional 17%," the study states. "However, the hidden costs can actually increase the price of the meal up to 191% and 123% for men and women, respectively, depending on their current BMI [body mass index]."

The study is based on fast-food chains, but the principle also applies to home-cooked food or items from fancy restaurants.

"In essence, the more a person overeats, the greater the financial cost," write the researchers, noting that "a calorie is a calorie despite the source."

Making Assumptions

The study relies on five assumptions:

  • Supersized servings went beyond normal calorie budgets.
  • People wouldn't cut back on calories or exercise more to make up for their calorie splurge.
  • A 1-time supersized serving of fries and regular soft drinks would prompt a fat gain of 36 grams (8% of 1 pound).
  • Extra weight gain would reduce gas mileage and raise medical bills.
  • To keep the extra weight, people would need to consume more calories than they used to, meaning bigger bills at the grocery store.

Based on those ground rules, annual costs rose by $3 to $7 from the 36-gram fat gain, the study shows. Those amounts include the greater cost of the supersized meal, as well as grocery, medical, and gas bills.


Budget Data

According to the study, gaining 36 grams from a supersized meal means paying an extra nickel, over a year's time, in gas. That figure is based on spending $1.98 per gallon -- a bargain price nowadays -- and driving 14,000 miles per year.

The researchers also predicted slightly higher medical bills for people with overweight and obese BMI. Of course, not all lean people are healthy, and not all overweight or obese people are in poor health, though excess weight has been linked to a wide range of health conditions.

As for grocery bills, the study shows that men and women of all BMI categories would pay about 36 extra cents over a year's time to maintain a 36-gram gain.

Those might not sound like princely sums, but Close and Schoeller write that financial consequences may motivate some people to change their behavior.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on May 30, 2006


SOURCES: Close, R. Journal of the American College of NutritionNutrition, June 2006. News release, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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