supersize it!

David McDonald dbmcdonald at
Tue Jul 22 11:15:25 MDT 2003

What this article does not do is delve into why super-sized portions exist
in the first place.

My daughter, in her first full-time job at Coldstone Creamery, where one may
buy an ice cream for up to $8, is trained, when customers ask for a regular
ice cream (6 ounces, around a thousand calories) to say that for a mere $.40
more the customer can almost double their serving to 10 ounces. She says she
doesn't sell many regulars.

It's the same way in McDonald's: can I super-size that for you? The
economics of this, I believe without being able to offer genuine data, have
to do with the fact that food is the least of the expenses of the
super-sizing businesses. I am betting that the extra fries added to
super-size one of those now-puny looking normal portions of fries, have a
cost that can be expressed only in fractions of a penny. It is effectively
pure profit. Supersizing does not add to the wages of the staff, the cost of
the building, the cost of the deep fryer, and only a little for the extra
cost of the oil in the deeep fryer. It is basically the same reason that 500
business cards cost $75 and 1000 cost $79.50.

When I go into grocery stores these days I try to imagine what the shelves
would look like if all products that get most of their calories from refined
sugar and corn syrup were removed. They would be bare indeed.

Here is an observation about movie theaters. In Seattle, one of the biggest
chain theaters in the newest mall downtown has one, exactly one person,
right where you enter, who takes tickets for 11 different screening rooms.
One is effectively encouraged to engage in unpaid double and triple
features. I chuckled a while over the foolish parsimony of the builders and
managers of this establishment, until I realized the true reason: people who
stay for double features have to eat, and the food is more profitable than
the movies because the distributor gets a share. The movies play the same
role as free peanuts in a bar.

David McDonald

July 22, 2003
The Gorge-Yourself Environment

rom giant sodas to supersize burgers to all-you-can-eat buffets, America's
approach to food can be summed up by one word: Big.

Plates are piled high, and few crumbs are left behind. Today's blueberry
muffin could, in an earlier era, have fed a family of four.

But social norms change. Free love has given way to safe sex. Smokers have
become pariahs. The gin fizz and the vodka gimlet have yielded to the mojito
and the cosmopolitan.

Now many health experts are hoping that, in the service of combating an
epidemic of obesity, the nation might be coaxed into a similar cultural
shift in its eating habits.

Traditionally, the prescription for shedding extra pounds has been a
sensible diet and increased exercise. Losing weight has been viewed as a
matter of personal responsibility, a private battle between dieters and
their bathroom scales.

But a growing number of studies suggests that while willpower obviously
plays a role people do not gorge themselves solely because they lack

Rather, social scientists are finding, a host of environmental factors —
among them, portion size, price, advertising, the availability of food and
the number of food choices presented — can influence the amount the average
person consumes.

"Researchers have underestimated the powerful importance of the local
environment on eating," said Dr. Paul Rozin, a professor of psychology at
the University of Pennsylvania, who studies food preferences.

Give moviegoers an extra-large tub of popcorn instead of a container one
size smaller and they will eat 45 to 50 percent more, as Dr. Brian Wansink,
a professor of nutritional science and marketing at the University of
Illinois, showed in one experiment. Even if the popcorn is stale, they will
still eat 40 to 45 percent more.

Keep a tabletop in the office stocked with cookies and candy, and people
will nibble their way through the workday, even if they are not hungry.
Reduce prices or offer four-course meals instead of single tasty entrees,
and diners will increase their consumption.

In a culture where serving sizes are mammoth, attractive foods are
ubiquitous, bargains are abundant and variety is not just the spice but the
staple of life, many researchers say, it is no surprise that waistlines are
expanding. Dr. Kelly D. Brownell, a professor of psychology at Yale and an
expert on eating disorders, has gone so far as to label American society a
"toxic environment" when it comes to food.

Health experts and consumer advocates point to the studies of portion size
and other environmental influences in arguing that fast-food chains and food
manufacturers must bear some of the blame for the country's weight problem.

"The food industry has used portion sizes and value marketing as very
effective tools to try to increase their sales and profits," said Margo
Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the
Public Interest, an advocacy group financed by private foundations.

Trial lawyers met in Boston last month to discuss legal approaches to
obesity, including lawsuits against fast-food chains and food manufacturers
on grounds like false advertising, failure to provide labeling about caloric
content or even fostering food addiction.

At least seven such lawsuits have been filed, with varying success, said
John F. Banzhaf III, a professor of public interest law at George Washington
University. Professor Banzhaf, who led the way in litigation against tobacco
companies, is now channeling similar energy into reforming fast food.

The food industry, however, dismisses such suits as a device to deposit more
money in lawyers' bank accounts. The onus for eating healthfully, industry
spokesmen say, rests entirely with the consumer.

"If you don't want a large hamburger in a restaurant, usually there is a
smaller hamburger," said Steven Anderson, the president and chief executive
of the National Restaurant Association. "You can get a grilled chicken
sandwich in almost any restaurant I've ever been in. There are the options
there and it's for the individual to decide."

Still, at least one company, Kraft Foods, the maker of Oreos and Lunchables,
recently announced its intention to "help encourage healthy lifestyles" by
reducing portion sizes for some products.

Some scientists have mixed feelings about taking the obesity issue into
court. "Whenever trial lawyers get hold of an issue, I worry," said Dr. Adam
Drewnowski, the director for the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the
University of Washington.

But none dispute that an increasing number of studies show that how food is
served, presented and sold plays at least some role in what and how much
people eat.

Price is a powerful influence. In a series of studies, researchers at the
University of Minnesota have demonstrated that the relative cost of
different products has an even more potent effect on food choice than
nutritional labeling.

Dr. Simone French, an associate professor of epidemiology, and her
colleagues manipulated the prices of high-fat and low-fat snacks in vending
machines at 12 high schools and 12 workplaces. In some cases, the snacks
were labeled to indicate their fat content.

"The most interesting finding was that the price changes were whopping in
effect," compared with the labels, Dr. French said. Dropping the price of
the low-fat snacks by even a nickel spurred more sales. In contrast, orange
stickers signaling low-fat content or cartoons promoting the low-fat
alternatives had little influence over which snacks were more popular.

Packaging can change the amount people consume. Dr. Wansink and his
colleagues have showed that, fooled by a visual illusion, people drink more
from short, wide glasses than thinner, taller ones, but they think they are
drinking less.

Having more choices also appears to make people eat more. In one study, Dr.
Barbara Rolls, whose laboratory at Pennsylvania State University has studied
the effects of the environment on eating, found that research subjects ate
more when offered sandwiches with four different fillings than they did when
they were given sandwiches with their single favorite filling.

In another study, participants served a four-course meal with meat, fruit,
bread and a pudding — foods with very different tastes, flavors and
textures — ate 60 percent more food than those served an equivalent meal of
only their favorite course.

To anyone who has survived Christmas season at the office, it will come as
no surprise that the availability of food has an effect as well. Dr. Wansink
and his colleagues varied the placement of chocolate candy in work settings
over three weeks. When the candy was in plain sight on workers' desks, they
ate an average of nine pieces each. Storing the sweets in a desk drawer
reduced consumption to six pieces. And chocolates lurking out of sight, a
couple of yards from the desk, cut the number to three pieces per person.

Researchers have long suspected that large portions encourage people to eat
more, but studies have begun to confirm this suspicion only in the last
several years.

There is little question that the serving size of many foods has increased
since McDonald's introduced its groundbreaking Big Mac in 1968.

For her doctoral dissertation, Dr. Lisa Young, now an adjunct assistant
professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at
New York University, tracked portion sizes in national restaurant chains, in
foods like cakes, bread products, steaks and sodas and in cookbook recipes
from the 1970's to the late 1990's.

The amount of food allotted for one person increased in virtually every
category Dr. Young examined. French fries, hamburgers and soda expanded to
portions that were two to five times as great as they had been at the
beginning of the period Dr. Young studied. Steaks, chocolate bars and bread
products grew markedly. Cookbooks specified fewer servings (and
correspondingly larger portions) for the same recipe appearing in earlier

"Restaurants are using larger dinner plates, bakers are selling larger
muffin tins, pizzerias are using larger pans and fast-food companies are
using larger drink and French fry containers," Dr. Young wrote in a paper
published last year in The American Journal of Public Health.

Even the cup holders in automobiles have grown larger to make room for giant
drinks, Dr. Young noted.

She and other experts think it is no coincidence that obesity began rising
sharply in the United States at the same time that portion sizes started
increasing. But cause and effect cannot be proved. And the food industry
rejects the idea of a connection. Mr. Anderson of the restaurant
association, for example, says that lack of exercise, poor eating habits and
genetic influences are largely responsible for Americans' struggle with
extra fat.

Still, in cultures where people are thinner, portion sizes appear to be

Take France, where the citizenry is leaner in body mass and where only 7.4
percent of the population is obese, a contrast to America, where 22.3
percent qualify. Examining similar restaurant meals and supermarket foods in
Paris and Philadelphia, Dr. Rozin and colleagues at Penn found that the
Parisian portions were significantly less hefty. Cookbook portions were also
smaller. Even some items sold at McDonald's — the chicken sandwich, for
example — are smaller than their American counterparts.

"There is a disconnect between people's understanding of portions and the
idea that a larger portion has more calories," said Dr. Marion Nestle,
chairwoman of the N.Y.U. nutrition and food policy department and the author
of "Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health."

The Double Gulp, a 64-ounce soft drink sold by 7-Eleven, Dr. Nestle noted,
has close to 800 calories, more than a third of many people's daily
requirement, but she said people were often shocked to learn this.

And, as studies by Dr. Rolls, Dr. Wansink and others suggest, faced with
larger portions, people are likely to consume more, an effect, Dr. Rolls
noted, that is not limited to people who are overweight.

"Men or women, obese or lean, dieters, nondieters, plate-cleaners,
non-plate-cleaners — it's pretty much across the board," she said.

In one demonstration of this, Dr. Rolls and her colleagues varied the
portions of ziti served at an Italian restaurant, keeping the price for the
dish the same but on some days increasing the serving by 50 percent. On the
days of the increase, Dr. Rolls said, customers ate 45 percent more, and
while diners rated the bigger portion size as a better value, they deemed
both servings appropriate.

The researchers have also shown that after downing large plates of food,
people do not usually compensate by eating less at their next meal.

Very young children, studies suggest, are relatively immune to the pressures
that huge food seems to impose on adults. Three-year-olds served three
different portion sizes of macaroni and cheese for lunch on three different
days, Dr. Rolls and her colleagues discovered, ate the same amount each
time. Five-year-olds, however, already showed signs of succumbing to adult
overindulgence, eating more when more was put in front of them.

Researchers have yet to cement the link between larger portions and a fatter
public. But add up the studies, Dr. Rolls and other experts say, and it is
clear Americans might have more success slimming down if plates were not
quite so large and a tempting snack did not await on every corner.

Obviously, people have responsibility for deciding what to eat and how much,
Dr. Rolls said. "The problem is," she said, "they're not very good at it."

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