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Having a little less to chew on

The county's public service ads offer good advice, but trying to get people to eat smarter on a grand scale is a tough task.

November 27, 2012|Steve Lopez
  • L.A. County's Department of Public Health is encouraging the public to downsize their portions and their waistlines.
L.A. County's Department of Public Health is encouraging the public… (Los Angeles County Department…)

I've got two reasons to watch my weight over the next several weeks. First, it's the holiday season, when the national sport is overeating. Second, I've got another knee replacement coming up soon, and the lighter I am going in, the easier the recovery will be.

Maybe that's why I've been noticing the county's public service ad campaign around town. The ads are on billboards and transit shelters, among other places, and each one examines two different meal options.

The double cheeseburger, large fries and large cola depicted on one ad, for example, add up to 1,250 calories. But scale back to a cheeseburger, small fries and small cola, and the damage is a mere 680 calories.

This theme is repeated with sandwiches, pizza and breakfast. You can stuff yourself with four pancakes, two fried eggs and four strips of bacon, then waddle away under the weight of 1,050 calories. Or, if you think you can survive with two fewer pancakes and two fewer pieces of bacon, you're down to 650 calories.

"Choose Less. Weigh Less," says the text on the ads, which also say: "2,000 calories a day is all most adults need."

Says who?

Says the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, which got $1 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to fund the ad campaign.

This kind of government preaching has been lambasted as nanny state nonsense in some parts of the country, most notably in New York, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has banned the sale of sugary soft drinks larger than 16 ounces in restaurants and movie theaters.

But Jonathan Fielding, L.A. County's public health director, counters that in a county that's had a 74% increase in adult obesity between 1997 and 2011, something has to be done. "Our obesity epidemic," said Fielding, is responsible for "a huge portion" of disabling and potentially fatal conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

Those diseases cost all of us through higher insurance rates and a bigger tax burden. So I don't have a problem with trying to counteract the billions spent to promote fast food and junk food. And as Fielding noted, this campaign (which you can learn more about at http://www.choosehealthla.com) is part of a broader effort to promote more healthful lifestyles.

Some of the advice from the county is a little simplistic, to be honest. We're advised to replace the candy dish with a fruit bowl, save half for later and "avoid mindless munching in front of the TV."

Then again, we're a bunch of hopeless dummies when it comes to diet, paying small fortunes for personal instructors and kooky weight-loss plans when there's a sure-fire program that costs nothing at all:

Eat a little less, exercise a little more.

There's an element of that simplicity in the portion-control campaign. We're not told to kick the pancake habit and switch to dried kelp with toasted flax seed, but to eat fewer pancakes.

"That's smart," said Nicky De Marinis, who said he's lost 15 pounds in four months by eating a little less of everything rather than eliminating anything.

I bumped into De Marinis, who owns Nicky D's Pizza in Silver Lake, near one of the pancake ads in Los Feliz. If his pizza wasn't so good, I told him, it'd be easier for me to lose weight.

"Don't eat the whole pizza," said De Marinis. He was with his wife, Bunny, who said she remembered when a soft drink was served in a sensible cup and a cookie wasn't the size of a Frisbee.

"I hate to say it," said Nicky, "but maybe we need to stop putting so much pasta on the plate at the restaurant."

Cornell University professor Brian Wansink, author of "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think," says L.A. County is using a smart approach in a society programmed to overindulge.

"You're going in the right direction to say, 'Eat what you want, but eat a little less,' " said Wansink.

That was exactly the idea, said Dr. Fielding. "Wholesale change is very difficult," he said. "Smaller changes are easier."

Easier, but not a sure bet. What we eat, and how much, are influenced by marketing, by how much the person next to us is eating, and even by the size of plates and glasses, said Wansink. A taller, narrower glass gives you the impression that you're drinking more, so you end up drinking less.

Wendy Wood, a USC psychology professor who studies exercise and eating habits, said the portion-control campaign could be useful in reminding people to consider how much food is appropriate. But knowing the best option doesn't mean you'll make the right choice.

"My guess is that people who see that billboard already know that five slices of bacon and four pancakes aren't good for them," she said.

We develop patterns that are hard to break, Wood said. On a research project, she and some colleagues went to a movie theater and gave out two batches of popcorn to people who habitually eat popcorn in theaters. One batch was fresh, the other was a week old. But the people with the lousy popcorn ate just as much of it as the people with the good stuff.

"And they didn't even like it," said Wood. "It gives you an idea of the power of environmental cues over our best intentions."

Case in point:

At the Civic Center subway station, Hollywood resident Cindy S. Collins told me the portion control ads make an obvious point, but it's a point we need to keep hearing.

Have the ads had any impact on her?

"Usually," she said, "but not today."

She had a craving that wouldn't be denied, so she marched like a kidnap victim to Carl's Jr. for some fries and the Superstar, a double burger the size of a hubcap.

"But that's all I'm going to eat all day," said Collins.

More than once, I've told myself the same thing.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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