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Don't Clean That Plate

August 01, 1996|LAWRENCE G. PROULX | THE WASHINGTON POST

'Eating is one of life's greatest pleasures," according to the federal "Dietary Guidelines for Americans."

Overeating is evidently another.

"One of three Americans is overweight enough to be at increased health risk," said Kelly Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders in New Haven, Conn.

Why some people eat to excess is a complicated question, and researchers approach it from many angles. Psychologists, for instance, like to examine what stimulates appetite and how different eaters respond to various stimuli.

Dianne Engell of the Army's research lab in Natick, Mass., recently completed a study with Barbara Rolls of Pennsylvania State University that examined how the size of food portions affects how much people eat. Previous studies, she said, have had mixed results.

She looked at three groups. Adult men ate more when served more. So did children about 5 years old.

"But with the really little kids, around 3 1/2 years old, no matter what you gave them to eat, no matter what size portion you gave them to eat, they ate the same amount," she said. "We're not sure why that is, but it suggests that the young children are listening more to internal cues and they're not as influenced as adults by environmental or external influences on intake."

In other words, it may be that small children are smart enough to stop when they're full and that the rest of us have learned to keep eating anyway.

One way to get smart again is to control the size of food portions in front of you, many experts said. People pay a lot of attention to what to eat and what not to eat, but how much they eat matters too. It matters a lot.

Dr. Kenneth Setchell, professor of pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati, said he finds it "rather funny that people get all excited about the fat gene." Look at the huge piles of food people are served in restaurants, he said. "Their total caloric content is enormous, and then [Americans] wonder why obesity is rampant."

Engell agreed. The size of portions is "one of the things, when I have friends from other countries, they first comment on when they come here." Of course this isn't the only reason for Americans' obesity, but "does it make people eat more? I think the answer is absolutely yes."

"The Japanese in their dietary guidelines recommend eating 30 different foods per day," said Adam Drewnowski, director of the Human Nutrition Program at the University of Michigan. That makes excellent sense, he said. "Generally, the fewer foods people eat, the larger portions people tend to eat. And in fact we should be doing it the other way."

Mark S. Meskin, a professor of nutrition at USC, said a lot of people are confused about what a serving of food should be. The Dietary Guidelines call for two to three servings a day from the protein group, but they define a serving of meat, poultry or fish as just 2 to 3 ounces. Clearly, there's more than one serving in the usual helping of these foods.

On the other hand, Meskin remarked, people who are daunted by the official recommendation to eat two to four servings of fruit and three to five of vegetables should consider that, for instance, a large apple could constitute two servings.

If you're used to thinking of a serving as whatever's in one package, think again. Meskin advised eaters to make sure to note the serving size on the package's nutrition label. "Most people's eyes . . . skip down to total fat. People need to look at the top part of the label and get an idea of what a serving is, and then go down to the total fat," he said. "The nutritional labels are actually pretty useful if you use them."

"One of the best ways to lose weight is to be aware of the portion sizes that you're eating and then cut back on those for the foods that are higher in fat and higher in calories and to increase the portions of the foods that may be lower in calories or higher in fiber," said Cindy Moore, a Cleveland dietitian. "In doing that, you're going to help yourself feel full so you won't feel hungry."

Dietitian Faye Berger Mitchell offers a bolder tactic: "I have a friend, and often when we go out we share an appetizer, share a meal, share a dessert. So you're having half a meal by restaurant standards but what is really a normal portion."

The good news, Drewnowski said, is that "all foods [even ice cream] fit into any kind of diet provided that the diet is varied and the portion sizes are small."

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