Too Much of a Good Thing Can Be Bad for You

Americans are living large these days. And eating large. And drinking large. And, as a consequence, shopping for extra-large.
In many ways, a high-consumption lifestyle takes more effort to avoid in the US than to embrace. We are surrounded with opportunities to overeat -- the typical movie theater snack bar, for example, where tub-sized soft drinks and popcorn often come with free refills. And as studies have shown time and again, when served bigger portions, people will simply eat more food.
The instinct to eat whatever food is at hand is so strong that humans eat more even if the food tastes bad. In one study, while people at a movie theater given 14-day-old popcorn in boxes twice the normal size did complain about the taste, they still ended up eating 34% more popcorn than the people who got their stale snack in normal-sized boxes.
So if it sometimes seems the entire country has been "super-sized," that may not be too far off. Recent estimates are that 66.3% of adult Americans are overweight, and 32% obese. The number of kids who are overweight is also alarming, with 19% of children and 17% of teens being classified as overweight.
The costs associated with the extra pounds that come along with extra-large diets mean that choosing to super-size is usually not the frugal move you thought it was. Those extra pounds could put you at risk for something far more serious than tighter pants down the road: cancer.
Overweight and obesity are clearly linked to a higher risk of several types of cancer, including colon cancer, breast cancer (in women past menopause), kidney cancer, and cancers of the esophagus and endometrium. There's also evidence that excess pounds may raise the risk of several other types of cancer, as well. For this reason, weight control -- through healthy eating and regular exercise -- is a central focus of ACS Nutrition and Physical Activity Guidelines.
"There is no question that if you do not smoke, the most important lifestyle goal to work toward to reduce your cancer risk is to maintain a healthy weight," says Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, director of nutrition and physical activity for the American Cancer Society.

How Things Have Changed

Portion control is one way to keep your weight in check. But that can be hard to do in today's environment.
In a study from 2002 that compared commonly available food portions against standard portion serving sizes, Lisa R. Young, PhD, and Marion Nestle, PhD, of New York University's Department of Nutrition and Food Studies found marketplace food portions to be consistently larger than in previous years.
Some specific findings include:
  • Cookies were as much as 7 times standard portion sizes.
  • Servings of cooked pasta were often nearly 5 times standard portion sizes.
  • Muffins weighed in at over 3 times standard portion sizes.
Compounding the problem of bigger-size servings is the American tendency to "clean our plates." The more we're offered, the more we eat.

Controlling Portion Sizes

How do you know a reasonable portion of food when you see it? Visualize the objects mentioned below when eating out, planning a meal, or grabbing a snack. For example, the amount of meat recommended as part of a healthful meal is 3-4 ounces -- and it will look to be the same size as a deck of cards.

The Look of Normal Portion Sizes

  • 1 oz. meat: size of a matchbox
  • 3 oz. meat: size of a deck of cards or bar of soap -- the recommended portion for a meal
  • 8 oz. meat: size of a thin paperback book
  • 3 oz. fish: size of a checkbook
  • 1 oz. cheese: size of 4 dice
  • Medium potato: size of a computer mouse
  • 2 tbs. peanut butter: size of a ping pong ball
  • ½ cup pasta: size of a tennis ball
  • Average bagel: size of a hockey puck 

Read the Label

When is the last time you really looked at a Nutrition Facts label on a food package? Doing so can also help you keep your portions under control.
For instance, according to the label on the box, your favorite cereal might be just 80 calories PER SERVING. But read a little closer: How big is a serving? With cereal, it's normally ½ cup. Now, pour out your usual serving size and measure it. Chances are you're pouring 2, 3, 4, or more servings into every bowl!
Another label for closer scrutiny is the label on many beverages. Of special concern are those regular soft drinks packaged in 20-ounce or larger containers. The label may show a fairly low level of calories PER SERVING, but look again. How many SERVINGS does it list? You may be surprised to see the 20-ounce container is supposed to provide 2.5 or more servings, and you usually drink it as one serving!