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Growing portion sizes in the US: time for action

Below is my latest post for Huffington Post. I highlight key points from my latest academic paper on growing portion sizes.

The prevalence of overweight has increased in adults and children and shows no signs of decreasing. As I have previously written, large portions of unhealthy high caloric foods have indeed contributed to this problem.

In my latest paper, “Reducing Portion Sizes to Prevent Obesity: A Call to Action,” just published in the November issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine with my NYU colleague Marion Nestle, we discuss recent portion-size trends and offer several suggestions to address the problem with ever expanding food portions.

Here are some key points:

Portion sizes have continued to increase through the first decade of the 21st century. Top 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 Triple Whopper contains 1,140 calories.

As we illustrate in our paper, the trend toward 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 become conditioned and have come to expect larger portions. So what can we do about this continued trend toward larger portions?

We offer several approaches:

1. Education and Public Health Campaigns
Health professional should continue to advise patients on portion control and healthy eating.

2. Consistent Serving Sizes
The FDA sets standards for food labels and the USDA sets standards for dietary guidance and education. These standards are smaller than typical portions, 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 Small Portions
The food environment must support healthier food choices and encourage consumers to want to buy the smaller size. One way to do that would be to offer price breaks for smaller-size portions. Our current price structure encourages us to supersize. We can often get twice as much food or drink for just a few cents. We need to reverse this trend
by making the smaller size financially appealing.

4. Portion Size Limits in Food-Service Establishments
Policy approaches to limit marketplace portions should be considered. A recent policy conceived by Mayor Bloomberg of New York City, and recently approved by the Board of Health to cap the sizes of sugary drinks to 16 ounces, will be implemented in March 2013. I have been an active advocate of this policy, have previously written for Huffington Post about it, and do hope other public health departments follow in New York City’s footsteps.

In your own life, I urge you to consider such 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.

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