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When it comes to America’s battle of the bulge, the news isn't good. In 1993, one in four people was overweight; today, 64% of the population is packing too many pounds. What's happening? Well, you guessed it. We're getting less exercise and, perhaps more significant, eating more. And one of the main culprits is the increasingly enormous portions being served up in the nation’s eateries. Elizabeth Somer, Registered Dietitian and author of “Food & Mood” (Henry Holt and Co., Inc.), offers advice on how keep trim in the face of the America’s overabundance.
1: How much have portions grown – and why?
Portions have ballooned up to 10-fold in the past 30 years, with the greatest increases in calorie-packed fast food, foods high in refined carbohydrates, and meat. A typical cookie today is eight-times bigger, a serving of pasta is almost six-times larger, muffins and bagels are three-times larger and steaks are twice as large.
It’s all the result of good old competition – food costs have remained relatively low and retailers see generous portions as a way of keeping up with their rivals. And these "value meals" are often extra-heavy on the fat and calories.
Restaurants are using larger plates, bakers are selling bigger muffin tins, pizzerias are using larger pans, cars have larger cup holders, and fast food restaurants are packaging drinks and French fries in bigger containers.
So it's no great surprise that a study from the University of North Carolina found these bigger portions mean extra calories, while the Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that the average American has added up to 300 extra calories a day since the mid-1980s.
2. How do these portions compare with the recommended daily allowances suggested by the USDA?
According to the USDA, a serving of meat should be 3 ounces; at your typical restaurant, whether it's a steak or the turkey on your deli sandwich, the meat can weigh up to 16 ounces. That's more than 5 servings!
Refined grains — pasta, bread and so forth — are another food we have come to expect in mega-portions. According to the USDA and its Pyramid Food Guide, we should include 5 to 11 servings of grain in our daily diets. Sounds good, until you know that the USDA serving of pasta is half a cup, or about 4 fork twirls. However, most pasta dishes in restaurants are served as platters, not portions — therefore a typical restaurant serving of spaghetti, which amounts to 12 to 16 servings, according to the USDA, served together with two slices of garlic bread, will have you leaving the restaurant with up to two day's worth of grain!
The Solution: Regardless of what's on the plate, it's up to you to take charge of how much you eat. Request half orders, order a la carte, or bag half your entree before you begin to eat. A recent study found that eating your salad first (without the dressing!) helps fill you up so you cut your portion of the main course.
3. Many of us are in a hurry and grab food on the go. How should I deal with the issue of fast-food portions?
Just assume that the portion of anything you eat at a fast-food establishment is too big and packs in two to five times more calories than you ever would imagine.
For example, according to the portions established by the USDA, a muffin or bagel should weigh about 1 ounce. But Au Bon Pain’s chocolate chip muffin weighs 4.5 ounces and supplies 600 calories and 26 grams of fat. That's 6.5 teaspoons of fat!
Coffee isn't off the hook either. Coffee seems only come in tall, grande, and humungous (what ever happened to small and regular?) and some coffee drinks, such as the Starbucks Café Mocha Grande, made with whole milk, contains 409 calories and almost 8 teaspoons of fat. That’s the calorie equivalent of eating a huge piece of chocolate devil's food cake with frosting, but with twice the fat!
A sausage 'n cheese pizza is an obvious disaster, but the veggie pizza is ok, right? Not! Pizza Hut's Stuffed Crust Veggie Lover's Pizza supplies 840 calories and 34 grams of fat (that's 8.5 teaspoons of fat!).
And beware some of the offerings at the new breed of casual restaurants serving apparently healthy food styles. For example, Baja Fresh, a Mexican food chain that has a wonderful salsa bar, serves a Dos Manos Enchilada-Style Burrito that weighs 62 ounces and contains 3,370 calories, 39 teaspoons of fat, and 63 grams of saturated fat. Even if you only ate once a day, you'd gain weight on that meal!
The Solution: Split a muffin or bagel or tear in half and throw away the other piece (or keep it for later in the day). As for the mocha, just order a "Tall" made with nonfat milk, skip the whipped cream, top it with a few chocolate shavings and sweeten with aspartame or saccharine. For the pizza, cut back on calories by ordering thin crust with extra vegetables (no extra cheese), have one slice, and fill up on a side salad (with dressing on the side). When it comes to the burrito at Baja Fresh, order the Vegetarian Bare Burrito (for 560 calories) and split it with a partner.
4. Can you side-step some of these portion disasters by switching to healthier ingredients, such as chicken or fish?
Don't be fooled by many of the so-called "healthier" options at fast-food chains. They can be even bigger portion and calorie problems than the typical fare.
- A Smoked Turkey Club Sandwich at Au Bon contains 760 calories and 34 grams of fat (8.5 teaspoons!).
- Burger King's BK Big Fish Sandwich supplies 710 calories and 39 grams of fat, half of which are saturated.
- A Crispy Chicken Caesar Salad at McDonalds with croutons and a packet of dressing supplies 550 calories, the calorie equivalent of a Quarter Pounder with Cheese and half of your day's allotment of fat (35.5 grams or 9 teaspoons).
The Solution: At the drive-through, order grilled chicken breast sandwiches with no mayo and a glass of OJ, or split a burger and bring baby carrots and soymilk from home to accompany the meal. When it comes to those fast-food salads, stick with grilled chicken, skip the croutons, and ask for fat-free dressing.
5: Any other flab-fighting tips for eating out?
a) The Unit Rule: The bigger the container, the more we eat. According to research at the University of Pennsylvania, people eat in units, such as a sandwich, a cookie, a plate of food, a bag of chips, a slice of pizza. Today, these units are jumbo burgers, bigger plates, and muffins the size of small cakes. One way to overcome this problem is to request a half portion and have it served on a salad plate, instead of a dinner plate. Also, skip the "value" meals and "economy-sized" bags of munchies, share a small bag of candy at the theater instead of having a large bag all to yourself, get used to leaving food on your plate (or taking it home), and order a kid's hamburger instead of the Big Mac.
b) Split an Entree. Order an entree to share, then order side salads and soups to round out the meal.
c) Attitude Adjustment. In the past, eating out was a special occasion. Today we average almost four meals a week away from home -- and as a result can no longer think of these meals as a license to throw caution to the wind. Either you must consider restaurant fare as part of your healthy way of eating or, better yet, save fast-food meals for a once-a-month special occasion.
d) Get Real. People always — always — underestimate how much they eat, by up to 700 calories a day. To get real about portions, take one week, buy a scale and a measuring cup, and learn what a real portion should look like.
- Meat, chicken, fish: 3 ounces or the size of a deck of cards, or the palm of a woman's hand
- Pasta, rice, oatmeal, potatoes, cooked vegetables: half a cup, or the size of a tennis ball
- Bagel or muffin: 1 ounce, or the size of a ping pong ball
- Cheese: 1 ounce, or the size of a woman's thumb
- Butter, oil, margarine: 1 teaspoon, or the size of a stamp
- Salad dressing: 2 tablespoons, or the size of a standard ice cube
- Raw vegetables: 1 cup, or the size of a baseball
e) Load Up on Veggies. You don't have to eat less to downsize portions, just eat better. Help yourself to buckets of vegetables, broth-based soups, fruits, whole grains, soymilk, and other real foods high in water and fiber and you fill up before you fill out. It's not bigger portions that cause weight problems, it's bigger portions of foods high in fat, sugar, and calories.