A Fat Nation
America's `supersize' diet is fattier and sweeter--and deadlier
According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, many fast-food chains encourage customers to order "supersize" items, pointing out that they get more value for their dollar. At the Cinnabon pastry chain, for example, a 3-ounce Minibon costs about $2, but for only about 50 cents more the customer can feast on an 8-ounce Cinnabon. What's not advertised, however, is the fact that this bargain raises caloric intake from 300 to 670. The trend in "value marketing" also means that chain restaurants combine foods into a meal that often costs less than buying each item separately. For example, the Center for Science in the Public Interest reports that at McDonald's, a Quarter Pounder With Cheese, medium fries, and medium soft drink purchased separately cost an average of $5.03. But an Extra Value Meal with the same items costs just $3.74. There is also the option of making the "value" meal even larger. At Wendy's, the Classic Double With Cheese Old-Fashioned Combo Meal costs $4.89 and has 1,360 calories. For only 39 cents more, one can "biggie size" the meal and eat 1,540 calories.
And when that supersize portion is served to your table or car window, says Nestle, "there is something about our psychology that makes us eat more if it's put in front of us." Pennsylvania State University nutrition professor Barbara Rolls demonstrated precisely this phenomenon. In her study, lean young men, known to regulate food intake well, were given different portions of macaroni and cheese for lunch on different days. When served 16 ounces, they ate 10, but when given the 25-ounce "jumbo lunch," they ate 15 ounces, 50 percent more than what had satisfied them previously.
Not only are Americans eating more at meals, they're eating more meals. Snacking has increased so much, says UNC's Popkin, "that children eat about five meals now and adults eat 4 1/2. A quarter of children's calories now come from snacks, and the typical snack is no longer an apple. Snacks are often potato chips or tortilla chips." Two decades ago, snacks made up only 11.3 percent of the diet. By 1996, that figure was 17.7 percent. Consumption of salty snack foods has doubled in the past 20 years, according to a UNC study.
Courted by food. Eating opportunities are endless because food is sold almost everywhere. "Just go back 20 years," says Yale's Brownell. "You never used to find more than a candy counter in a drugstore. Now there are aisles and aisles of food. If you see a gas station that does not have a food store attached, people are afraid to use it. There are food courts in shopping malls. And in the schools, there are vending machines and soft-drink machines--and they aren't selling carrot juice."
In fact, most of these eating venues are selling the same foods--candy, soft drinks, salty snacks, pastries, ice cream, cookies, nachos, pizza, hot dogs, cheeseburgers, and other fried foods. These are some of the food companies' most profitable items, and they received the lion's share of the $11 billion the industry spent on advertising in 1997. Indeed, food companies are the second-largest advertisers in the U.S. economy, just behind automobiles. About $1.54 billion of the total went toward advertising prepared, processed, and convenience foods. Fast-food and food-service companies spent an additional $3.1 billion. In comparison with these ad dollars, the USDA's nutrition education budget is roughly $333 million, about the same as the advertising budget for coffee, tea, and cocoa.