Health | January 2011 | By Sam Oches

A Super-Sized Dilemma

Fast food customers love big portion sizes, but with nutrition and obesity under more public scrutiny, quick serves are left to decide whether to listen to their customers or to their critics.

In 2004, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock released a documentary, Super Size Me, that made waves across the foodservice sector and among American consumers. By eating nothing but McDonald’s food for 30 days and ordering the Super Sized version of a meal each time it was offered, Spurlock documented the negative physical toll an experiment like his could have on the human body.

The documentary thrust a finger in the face of the fast food industry and ultimately led to McDonald’s discontinuing its Super Size menu offerings just months after the film’s release. Portion sizes within the quick-service industry, many contended, had gotten out of control.

Fast-forward seven years: Calories are joining restaurant menuboards, the Obama administration is putting nutrition and obesity under the microscope, and more consumers are keeping tally of their intake of trans fats, sodium, high fructose corn syrup, and other ingredients.

Once again, experts and consumers alike are calling into question whether quick-service portion sizes are too large.

“I think portion size is a reason that the obesity epidemic is upon us,” says Jayne Hurley, senior nutritionist with the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). “As people have started going to restaurants on a more regular basis, we’ve seen the obesity rates climb as well. I think portion size is a very important factor in turning the tide on this.”

The government agrees. Robert Post, deputy director of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, says the administration’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans—a report compiled every five years—found for the first time in its 2010 report that portion size was a significant component of the health debate.

“We’re looking at this as a cue here at the USDA, and we know that as we move forward with communicating the Dietary Guidelines and educating consumers, that portion size is going to have to be an important piece of the information, along with calories, and along with limiting foods that are significant sources of solid fats and added sugars and sodium,” Post says.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which was preliminarily released in June but which won’t be made official until early this year, states that “strong evidence documents a positive relationship between portion size and body weight.”

Still, the quick-serve industry—an industry where value tends to be connected to the mindset of “more bang for your buck”—was a $160 billion industry in 2009. It was expected to grow 3 percent in 2010, according to the National Restaurant Association.

With the government saying one thing and consumers buying another, quick serves are left to determine what the right portion size is for them.

The USDA, in its 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (the last officially published Dietary Guidelines report) and MyPyramid online nutrition tool, suggests appropriate portion sizes for average Americans to consume in six food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, meat and beans, milk, and oils.

For an average 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, the guidelines suggest 2 cups of fruit per day; 2½ cups of vegetables; 6 ounce-equivalents of grain; 5½ ounce-equivalents of meat and beans; 3 cups of milk; and 24 grams of oils.

The USDA’s MyPyramid recommends standard serving sizes for various foods. One serving of meat should be 2-3 ounces; a serving of bread should be one slice of white or whole grain bread, or ½ cup of pasta or rice; a serving of fruit should be one piece; and a serving of dairy should be 1 cup of milk, or 1½ ounces of cheese.

But today, with fast food burgers regularly clocking in at a half-pound (about 6 ounces cooked) and other menu options regularly surpassing recommended sizes, nutritionists fear consumers are learning to expect a new kind of normal serving size.

“They’re so much larger than what typical servings used to be that I think the average person now thinks these larger servings are now typical servings, and they’re not,” Hurley says.

In fact, research from the preliminary 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans shows that portion sizes in the fast food industry have increased dramatically in the last half century. The report shows that in 1954, an average hamburger was 3.9 ounces; most recent USDA findings report hamburgers ranged from 4.4 ounces to 12.6 ounces—up to a 223 percent increase.

What You Get & What You Should Get

Food What You Get What You Should Get
Bagel 4 ounces, 4½-inch diameter 1 ounce, 3-inch diameter
Muffin 4 ounces, 3½-inch diameter 1½ ounces, 2½-inch diameter
Cinnamon bun 6 ounces 1½ ounces
Burrito tortilla 2 ounces, 9-inch diameter 1 ounce, 7-inch diameter
Burger bun 1 bun ½ bun
Spaghetti 2 cups, cooked ½ cup, cooked
Rice 1 cup, cooked ½ cup, cooked
French fries 4 ounces 1 ounce
Fried chicken 7–8 ounces 2–3 ounces
Sirloin steak 8 ounces, cooked 2–3 ounces
Deli ham, roast beef 5 ounces 2–3 ounces
Tuna salad 6 ounces 2–3 ounces

The USDA’s MyPyramid tools recommends appropriate, healthy portion sizes for various food offerings. But a look at typical offerings from around the quick-serve industry show many restaurants are serving much more than they should.

Source: “How Much Are You Eating?” Dietary Guidelines for Americans, March 2002. What You Get is based on sample portion sizes at restaurants. What You Should Get is based on USDA MyPyramid recommended serving