Lifestyle

Study: Serving sizes in restaurants still way too big | Gustafson

Ninety-six percent of American chain restaurants serve meal sizes in excess of the USDA recommendations for daily intake of fat and sodium, according to a survey. - Courtesy
Ninety-six percent of American chain restaurants serve meal sizes in excess of the USDA recommendations for daily intake of fat and sodium, according to a survey.
— image credit: Courtesy

For the last six years, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer advocacy group, has given what it calls the annual "Xtreme Eating Awards" to restaurants for serving excessively large portions and using ingredients deemed to be unhealthy.

Some of the most popular eateries in America are among this year's "winners," including family favorites like the Cheesecake Factory, the International House of Pancakes and Maggiano's Little Italy.

The list, which is published on the CSPI website, rates restaurant dishes for calorie count as well as fat, sugar and sodium content. Some of the findings are outright startling. Single meals like the Cheesecake Factory's "Bistro Shrimp Pasta," a spaghetti dish with crispy battered shrimp in a cream sauce, easily exceed the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) recommended calorie count for an entire day. Even fruit drinks like Smoothie King's "Peanut Power Smoothie with Grapes" that sound healthy are in fact extremely caloric and laden with high amounts of sugar.

Ninety-six percent of American chain restaurants serve meal sizes in excess of the USDA recommendations for daily intake of fat and sodium, according to a survey conducted by the RAND Corporation.

These findings stand in stark contrast to the changing eating habits of many Americans who have become more health-conscious in recent years and who would choose to eat better and also less if given the chance. For example, at least one third of interviewed restaurant patrons said they would be agreeable to having their portion sizes reduced if such options were offered, according to studies on the subject.

"People are willing to downsize, but you have to ask them to do it (for them)," said Dr. Janet Schwarz, a psychologist and assistant professor of marketing at Tulane University in an interview with "The Salt," a production of National Public Radio (NPR).

Tests have shown that displaying calorie content, as it is now required for larger restaurant chains, has already made a difference in consumer choices. Researchers also found if people receive such information before they make their purchases, they are more inclined to order less or leave more on the plate than if they already have a big pile of food in front of them.

The well-known experiments by Dr. Brian Wansink, a professor for marketing and nutritional science at Cornell University and author of "Mindless Eating – Why We Eat More Than We Think," have demonstrated how our consumption tends to increase proportionally with the amounts of food available to us.

We need to change both sides of the equation, restaurants and their customers, in terms of expectations and what is considered of value, says Dr. Lisa Young, a nutrition professor at New York University (NYU). We all agree that portions have grown much too big over time. "Now that we are in agreement, we need to figure out ways to scale back," she says.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, which is available on her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D." (www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.

Read the latest Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Sep 26 edition online now. Browse the archives.