Since 1999, obesity rates in the United States have increased exponentially, from 30.5% to 42.4% in 2018, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans states that in 2018, 74% of American adults were considered overweight or obese, putting them at higher risk for developing chronic diseases.
Not surprisingly, a recent report published in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) shows an increase in obesity rates paralleling the increase in the size of packaged foods and fast food in America—between two and five times the previous normal servings when first introduced. Many products have not changed since the 2002 recommendations, with packaging still five times larger than before.
“Larger packaged portions lead to overeating because people pay little attention to their portion sizes, focusing instead on what they’re eating,” says Lisa Young, PhD, RDN, board member of our d medical experts and principal investigator for the AJPH report. “Research also shows that we eat more when we are presented with more food, even when we are not hungry or like the food.”
This original report, published Dec. 8 by Young and Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, focuses on larger portions for ultra-processed foods and calls for policies and practices that will encourage appropriate portion sizes. .
The study states that “Current US policies support the production of larger portions through commodity ingredient subsidies that promote overproduction and low prices. Food in the United States is relatively cheap compared to the costs of manufacturing and service, and larger portions can generate additional revenue for little cost.To consumers, large portions may seem like a bargain, but they contain more calories and encourage overeating.
To put that into perspective, while a large Coke from Burger King in the UK has 262 calories, in the US the large one is large enough to consume 510 calories.
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Larger portion sizes negatively affect the health of low-income communities.
This is not the first time Young or Nestlé have presented their research and pushed for policy change. Together, the two experts have published previous reports, including one in 2002, where they noticed an increase in market food portion sizes that exceeded federal standards, even though physical activity remained the same. Their 2003 report in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that this lack of change could easily be linked to the increased prevalence of overweight Americans.
And yet, while previous versions of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans called obesity “the greatest public health threat of this century,” Young and Nestlé point to the lack of change in portion sizes served in restaurants and in packaged foods in their 2012 report via the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
“It’s important to focus on what we eat as well as how much we eat,” says Young. “Both count for good health!”
Their AJPH The report also calls socioeconomic factors associated with weight gain, which is typically seen in communities of “poverty, inadequate education, racial and gender discrimination, unemployment, and lack of health care.” Frequent consumption of these foods occurs within these communities (lack of resources, low income, food deserts, etc.), making this particular issue a major public health concern. According to their report, reducing the size of servings served could be a “useful strategy for improving public health”.
Young and Nestlé’s report refers to an article published in the BMJ which recalls that 60% of the calories consumed between 2007 and 2012 came from ultra-processed foods. Consumption rates of these foods declined when comparing age and income level, as well as consumption for low-education communities.
While we wait for the policy change, experts are offering solutions for portion sizes.
Concluding their report, Young and Nestlé offer solutions that include price incentives for selling small portions of ultra-processed foods, stopping large sizes, and even restricting the marketing of large portions. Particularly around children and minorities.
However, since the policies remain the same, Young suggests a few ways to start these practices yourself to ensure better health for your body.
The first is to buy single-serving items. Instead of opening a big bag of chips, open a small one that’s meant for one person.
“While we can eat ‘several servings’ from a large bag of chips, we’re unlikely to open a bunch of small bags,” Young says. She also says that while buying a big bag is better for your budget, breaking it up into smaller portions to eat for later can be an easy fix.
Another is to add more fruits and vegetables to your meals.
“You really don’t need to worry about how much you eat,” Young says. “Fiber will help you feel full, so you’ll probably stop eating when you’re full. And focus on the positive nutrients and antioxidants you’re getting. Nobody gained weight by eating too many carrots.”
If fresh produce isn’t readily available to you, experts confirm that eating frozen vegetables or fruit can be an easy way out. Low-sodium canned vegetables can also help provide a nutritious edge to meals.
Finally, Young tells keep measuring cups handy when cooking at home.
“Although you don’t need to weigh everything you eat, when pouring cereal, for example, put a one-cup serving in a measuring cup rather than pouring the cereal directly into an oversized bowl” , explains Young.
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