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Our Portions, Ourselves

 By Sheila Himmel
San Jose Mercury News

I have put on weight and so have you.

We can blame the holidays and say, phew, all those pesky festivities
are over for a year. But a big part of the problem occurs daily for
most of us. We chronically eat in restaurants where portion size is
out of control.

At the Cheesecake Factory, one entree could feed a family. The
Grill's Porterhouse steak is 24 ounces. Even at smaller restaurants,
such as Kubota in Japantown, portions run big. Kubota's combination
platters feature tempura (battered, deep-fried vegetables and
seafood) and 8 ounces of steak or salmon.

"It's a `wow,' and it's going to continue," says Ron Paul,
president of Technomic, a Chicago-based restaurant consulting firm.
"It's a reason for people to come to you rather than the

Even the dinner plate has grown. A decade ago, the standard was 10
inches across. Now it's 12 (giving you more than a third more

Faced with the bigger plate and portions, few of us push it away. We
have no idea of what an appropriate amount of food would be.

To the Cheesecake Factory, newly opened in the South Bay, this is not
a problem. "In our restaurant, people order food, they eat what they
want and they take home the rest," said Howard Gordon, the company's
senior vice president of business development and marketing.

To Ellen Ruppel Shell, portion inflation connects with a host of
health problems, including obesity and type 2 diabetes.

"It's a myth that you're going to share your plate," says Ruppel
Shell, author of the new book, "The Hungry Gene: The Science of Fat
and the Future of Thin." Nearly one-third of American adults and 15
percent of children are now classified as obese. (Obesity is defined
as Body Mass Index of 30 or more, overweight as 25 or more. Nearly
two-thirds of American adults are overweight. To figure your BMI:
Divide your weight in pounds by your height in inches squared.
Multiply the result by 704.5.)

Big food lurks everywhere. In research for her book, Ruppel Shell
interviewed a 14-year-old boy at a prominent hospital's obesity
clinic. He weighed 300 pounds. She took him to lunch in the hospital
cafe, where he ordered the value meal. "And then, the counter person
asks if he wants it super-sized. Of course he does."

Everyone wants to feel like they're getting a deal.

"What's the choice? A salad?'' said Ruppel Shell in her Boston
office. "The choice is large or larger quantities of very dense
foods.'' (If you want to get technical, it's an "obesogenic
environment.'' And the culprits are ``extruded, processed fats and

It's not just fast foods. Gigantism and fat-loading have also
infected higher-end restaurants. Ruppel Shell found that restaurant
meals generally contain more than twice as many calories as
home-cooked meals. As she writes, "Any three-star chef worth his
toque knows that butter and cream -- not purified vegetable matter --
is what generally sells $40 entrees."

And in the middle, that coffee shop staple, the bacon, lettuce and
tomato sandwich, 600 calories in itself, has commonly been replaced
by bacon and cheese on a hamburger, at least 900 calories. Instead of
lettuce and tomato, we're eating cheese and hamburger.

Let's not blame the old familiars: willpower and, as always, Mom.

Why do some people who go through highly stressful times, like
divorce or job loss, suddenly gain weight? They don't become
different people and lose all willpower, Ruppel Shell argues. Nor did
she find any evidence that people whose mothers told them to clean
their plates were any more obese than others.

"Obesity is a combination of availability, and your own genetic
vulnerability, coupled with the sorts of food we eat. People don't
tend to become obese eating rice."

Boom economy, bust economy, Americans got into the habit of eating
out and getting takeout meals. This will mark the 12th consecutive
year of sales growth, the National Restaurant Association is
forecasting. On a typical day, the nation's 870,000 restaurants take
in $1.2 billion.

And we, the customers, take in up to 3,000 calories in a seating,
Jayne Hurley and Michael F. Jacobson found in research for
"Restaurant Confidential," their new book for the Center for
Science in the Public Interest. (Recommended daily consumption is
2,000 calories for women 19-50 years old, 2,900 calories for men
19-50 years old.)

A down economy only makes matters worse. "Getting our money's worth
is the big problem," Hurley said. "Who can turn their back on a

That's where restaurant consultant Paul sees advantages for some

"For senior citizens and baby boomers, particularly, they get enough
for lunch tomorrow. And the leftovers microwave well."

And by the way, restaurants may tack on another sale: dessert. Paul
says, "Diners can say, I didn't finish it all, so now I have room
for dessert."

The trouble is, we have lost the ability to judge portions. "If you
get more and it's on your plate, it's pretty hard not to eat the
whole thing," Hurley said.

Even the nation's dietetic professionals can't look at a plate and
judge what they should eat. At a 1996 meeting of the American
Dietetic Association, 203 dietitians estimated the calories and fat
content of five common restaurant meals placed before them. They
underestimated the calories by 37 percent and the fat by 49 percent.




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