Portion Sizes in the U.S. Keep Growing

By Lisa Young, PhD, RD, CDN

The prevalence of overweight has increased in adults and children alike and shows no signs of decreasing. Large portions of unhealthily high caloric foods have indeed contributed to this problem.

Larger Portions in Restaurants Coincide with
A Rising Prevalence of Overweight and Obesity

In a recent paper I co-authored with my NYU colleague Marion Nestle, titled “Reducing Portion Sizes to Prevent Obesity: A Call to Action,” published in the November issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, we discussed recent portion-size trends and offered suggestions to address the problem with the ever-expanding food portions.

Here are some key points: Portion sizes have continued to increase in the first decade of the 21st century. Fast food and restaurant chains continue to introduce new large-size portions. Food companies are introducing bigger burgers, burritos, pizzas and sandwiches. Some of these single-serving items – meaning, they are marketed for one person – contain more than 1,000 calories.

For example, Wendy’s “Baconator Triple Burger” contains approximately 1,300 calories and Burger King’s “Triple Whopper” has about 1,140 calories.

As we illustrated in our paper, the trend towards larger portions coincides with the availability of calories in the U.S. food supply and the rising prevalence of overweight and obesity.

The food industry has not responded to pleas from public health officials to reduce portions, and most Americans have come to expect larger portions. So what can we do about this continuing, worrisome trend?

We have offered several approaches:

1. Education and public health campaigns
Health professionals should continue to advise patients on portion control and healthy eating.

2. Consistent serving sizes
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets standards for food labels and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets standards for dietary guidance and education. These standards are smaller than typical portions but differ from one another and may be creating more confusion. One uniform system is needed to better advise the public on the relationship between portion size, calories and weight gain.

3. Price incentives for smaller portions
Our food environment must support healthier food choices and encourage consumers to buy the smaller sizes. One way to achieve that would be to offer price breaks for smaller-size portions. Our current price structure encourages supersizing. We can often get twice as much food or drink for just a few cents. We need to reverse this trend by making smaller sizes financially appealing.

4. Portion size limits in food service establishments
Policy approaches to limit marketplace portions should be given serious consideration. A recent policy conceived by Mayor Bloomberg of New York City, and recently approved by New York’s Board of Health to cap the sizes of sugary drinks at 16 ounces, will be implemented in March 2013.

I have been an active advocate for this policy and have previously written in the Huffington Post about it. I do hope other public health departments follow in New York City’s footsteps.

In your own life, I urge you to consider similar portion size strategies. Whether it be ordering a small instead of a large size, sharing a restaurant entrée, advising others to eat less, or getting active in a health and portion campaign, small steps in encouraging our food environment to support healthier food choices can ultimately result in reversing our obesity epidemic.

Lisa R. Young, PhD, RD, CDN is a nationally recognized nutritionist in New York City and an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University (NYU). She is the author of “The Portion Teller Plan” (Broadway, a Division of Random House, Inc.).

Widely considered an expert on portion sizes, Dr. Young is regularly featured in national publications including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Newsweek, Self, Fitness, Redbook and Glamour. She has been featured on national television, including ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, TODAY and CNN, and was featured in the film “Super Size Me.” For more information, please visit http://www.portionteller.com

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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