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Fight Back To Cut The Fat

December 8, 2003
Joan Eve Quinn (914) 378-2436 or
Alberto G. Rojas (914) 378-2434

—January Consumer Reports Helps Consumers Avoid Overeating—

YONKERS, NY – In the January Consumer Reports Health and Fitness Section, “Cut the Fat” informs readers that many American farms are churning out an overabundance of food, especially the foods that put on the pounds, making it easier than ever for people to overindulge and gain weight. While this bounty of corn, rice, soybeans, sugar and wheat contributes to the availability of healthful foods at low consumer prices, these ingredients are also heavily used to create processed foods and to fatten hogs and cattle. The glut of these ingredients has enabled the food industry to market hundreds of new cheap, high-calorie snacks a year, to sell jumbo soft drinks for pennies more than smaller servings, and to serve up supersized burgers, french fries, and pasta for low prices.
Cheap food translates into cheap calories, which end up growing waistlines as well as profits: 65 percent of American adults are overweight or obese, up from 47 percent 25 years ago. While no one is forcing Americans to overeat, the allure of cheap, tasty supersized snacks, soft drinks, and restaurant servings can be hard to resist. Some big food companies, such as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, are responding to criticism by adding some more healthful alternatives to their menus.
The glut of cheap, high-calorie food is financed, in part, by tax dollars: Federal farm subsidies encourage the production of sugars and refined carbohydrates, the very foods that we should eat less of to maintain a healthy weight. But low-calorie, healthful fruits and vegetables get no such support. And restaurant menus and food labels don’t always give all the information needed for consumers to make smart choices.
Bloated portions have become the norm throughout the food system, distorting our sense of the “right” amount to eat at a sitting. Home-cooked meals, however, are not the major source of the overeating problem and federal studies find that people eat more calories away from home than when they eat in. Not only are restaurant meals more fattening, we’re eating more of them than we used to. In 1977, 37 percent of the total U.S. food budget was spent on meals away from home. That figure rose to 46 percent in 2002. Over the past several decades, the restaurant and snack-food industries discovered that they could attract more customers and increase profits by charging just a little bit more for a substantially larger helping. As a result, some restaurant portions have grown to be gargantuan in size. For example, ziti that CR bought at a restaurant totaled four cups, which is eight times more than what the USDA Food Pyramid considers the size of one pasta serving—one-half cup.
Americans now drink twice as much soda as milk. Children ages 6 to 12 who drank 9 ounces of soft drinks a day ingested nearly 200 calories per day more than those who didn’t, but less milk and fruit juice, according to federal nutrition data. And soft drinks are more available to children and teens than ever before.
Consumers need reliable nutritional information so that they can choose healthful foods and resist the marketing messages intended to get them to overindulge. But adequate, accurate information is hard to come by: Food labels may disguise added sugars under confounding pseudonyms, such as crystalline fructose, high-maltose corn syrup, and honey lactose. Restaurant menus don’t always provide the information needed to choose meals that contain a reasonable number of calories.
The USDA has proposed a revision of the Food Guide Pyramid that cuts back on recommended calories for most age groups, in a concession to our increasingly sedentary habits. Some ideas from obesity experts that warrant further investigation: Governments could mandate disclosure of nutritional information on fast food and chain-restaurant menus; more funding could be allocated for marketing the benefits of healthful eating and physical activity; the government should require health-impact statements from farm subsidy proposals.
What you can do: Don’t order supersize portions. When the convenience of fast food is irresistible, try a plain burger or grilled chicken sandwich with a side salad and go easy on the dressing. Patronize restaurants that reveal calorie counts or offer healthier choices. If served an oversized meal, move half of everything to one side of your plate before you begin eating, and take it home. Ask for a double portion of vegetables instead of the starch. Eat a piece of fruit for your afternoon snack instead of visiting the vending machines. Be mindful of the number of servings listed on food labels: a small bag of potato chips may say 160 calories, but that may be for three servings.
The January 2004 issue of CR will be available December 9 wherever magazines are sold. To subscribe, call 1-800-765-1845.
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