Obesity is a major public health concern with up to half the population of developed countries such as the United States and Australia being overweight or obese. Obesity increases the risk of diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and some cancers.
Although it has been generally assumed that food portions have been increasing and that this increase is one of the major contributing factors to the obesity epidemic, there has been no study that has actually documented the increase. Samara Nielson and Dr. Barry Popkin from the Department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina, have published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, that indicates very clearly that at any given meal, on average, the typical American eats more than he or she did only a few decades ago.
The researchers analysed data from the Nationwide Food Consumption Survey (1977-1978) and the Continuing Surveys of Food Intake by Individuals (1989-1991, 1994-1996, and 1998). The sample consisted of 63,380 people aged 2 and older. As part of their analysis, the researchers calculated the average amounts of specific foods eaten in both calories and ounces at home, in restaurants and in fast-food restaurants for each survey year.
The specific foods examined were salty snacks, desserts, soft drinks, fruit drinks, French fries, hamburgers, cheeseburgers, pizza, and Mexican food. They found that portion sizes varied by food source, with the largest being consumed at fast-food establishments and the smallest at restaurants. Between 1977 and 1996, food portion sizes increased both inside and outside the home for all categories except pizza.
In a press release from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the authors said that in previous studies “there hasn't been enough focus on the sizes of portions, and that includes soft drinks and fruit drinks as well. Sometimes a conflict even exists between good nutrition and economics such as when you can get a significantly larger-size portion of French fries or soft drink for a very small extra cost."
Scholars and policymakers have discussed ‘supersizing’ (also known as up-sizing) as a problem in the marketing of food, Dr Popkin said. "While our research did not exactly study ‘[up]-sizing’, it shows its impact … in the very large portion-size increases in the past decade.” Combined with less physical activity than in decades past, the greater energy consumption significantly raises the risk of CVD and diabetes. "Clearly the problem is that Americans are eating too much food”, said Dr. Popkin. “The shifts in where we are eating, as well as the types of food and how much, are critical."
The authors concluded that the public required better education about control of portion size both inside and outside the home. Simply educating the public about which foods to eat or not to eat is not enough. The quantity of food being consumed was equally as important. The best way to encourage people to eat smaller portions is if food portions served inside and outside the home are smaller. However, the authors cautioned that “this change in behavior may be difficult to achieve due to the US advertising climate and its influence on the public”
More often than not, we are consuming more food – and therefore energy – than we need to meet our daily needs. Unfortunately, all that excess energy will be stored in the body as fat.
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