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Size Matters in Fast, Fatty Fare

Food: Nutritionists say larger restaurant portions have helped consumers add on the pounds. The industry says it's not to blame.

July 06, 2002|MARC BALLON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The fast-food industry's highly profitable practice of serving bigger portions has become a lightning rod for criticism by nutritionists and health advocacy groups that blame "portion distortion" for the bloating of America, a trend with unhealthful consequences.

Among other things, these critics are calling for legislation requiring restaurants to disclose calorie levels on menus, and they are particularly critical of chains' growing practice of "super-sizing" meals. They cite research showing that consumers who are served more tend to eat more.

The industry, however, says bigger portions should not be blamed for Americans' growing girth. They say consumers are not being forced to overeat.

With competition among eateries more cutthroat than ever and food costs relatively low, the typical restaurant dinner plate has grown 25%, to 12 1/2 inches, since the mid-1990s, said Lisa Young, a nutritionist and adjunct professor at New York University. At the same time, busy Americans are eating out more.

As portion sizes have expanded and restaurant visits increased, Americans have gotten larger. Sixty-one percent of U.S. adults are now classified as overweight or obese, up from 56% in 1994. Excess fat contributes to heart disease, cancer and diabetes, and an estimated 300,000 deaths per year, health experts say. In 2000, direct and indirect costs related to fatness amounted to $117 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"Super-sizing is contributing to the current epidemic of obesity in this country," said Barbara Rolls, a professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University. "The more you give people, the more they'll eat."

To help curb consumers' appetite for tasty-but-gut-busting fast food, the Center for Science in the Public Interest in recent months has begun pressuring federal and state lawmakers to pass legislation that would require chains to publish the calorie contents of burgers, burritos and other menu items. Such disclosures might give pause to many diners thinking of gorging themselves, said Jayne G. Hurley, senior nutritionist at the Washington-based group.

"If you walk into a supermarket, you can pick up any package and find out how many calories and how much fat it has. But you can't do that at a restaurant," she said. "People have no idea what they're getting, and would make better-informed decisions if they did."

The National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity, a group of 225 national, state and local health organizations, presented a study in mid-June that criticized the fast-food industry's practice of coaxing consumers to "super-size" their meals for a bit more money.

The American Institute for Cancer Research, a major charity that focuses on the link between diet and cancer, urges people to ask for half or smaller portions, even if it's not cost effective. Also, it recommends, desserts should be shared.

From a caloric standpoint, consumers who eat at fast-food restaurants often are getting a lot. A McDonald's Corp. super-size Extra Value Meal of a Quarter Pounder with cheese, 42-ounce Coke and large fries has 1,550 calories, according to the institute. That's nearly all of the Agriculture Department's recommended daily allotment of 1,600 calories for a sedentary woman and more than 70% of the 2,200-calorie quota for a man who exercises little.

No fast-food restaurants currently put nutrition information on menu boards, but almost all of them, including McDonald's, post the data on their Web sites. Burger King and Carl's Jr., among others, display it in restaurants. Others distribute pamphlets upon request.

The National Council of Chain Restaurants vigorously opposes any new regulations, said Terrie Dort, president of the Washington-based trade association. "We don't feel we need the government telling us what to do," she said. "Consumers who want information can already get it."

The Center for Science's Hurley said that's not good enough, arguing that consumers can't go online while waiting in line for their burgers and fries. Also, many don't even know they can obtain such information from restaurants.

Another reason for the restaurant industry's opposition is that making caloric data easily accessible could hurt sales, said Larry Sarokin of Sarokin & Sarokin, a Beverly Hills-based restaurant consulting firm. "If people knew how fattening the food was, they might eat fewer Whoppers and Big Macs," he said.

Legislation regulating fast-food menus has yet to be introduced and probably would face intense opposition from the restaurant industry and its allies, experts said.

McDonald's, Burger King and other outlets push the bigger sizes because soft drinks and fries have high profit margins that boost the bottom line, said Carlsbad restaurant consultant Hal Sieling. But they also add hundreds of calories to meals already low in nutrients and high in fat and sugar.

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