The US Surgeon General called for the food industry to take action on portion sizes in 2002, but a recent study showed that fast-food portion sizes have not decreased notably since that time. In fact, for some restaurants portion sizes have gone up, even as companies introduce new, healthier menu items.
The 2004 documentary "Super Size Me" shone a spotlight on large portion sizes at McDonald's and other fast-food restaurants. The film followed director Morgan Spurlock's month-long diet of nothing but McDonald's, during which he gained nearly 25 pounds. McDonald's discontinued its Supersize menu that same year, but said the move had nothing to do with Spurlock's documentary.
McDonalds' new Hugo soft drink, which has about 400 calories, is the same size as Supersize, though the company said it did not constitute a return of the option. The company is also testing its Angus Burger in Los Angeles, with plans to expand it to north-eastern markets.
The burger, which has a 1.3 pound patty, has 820 calories and 43 grams of fat when ordered with bacon and cheese. If eaten with large fries and a large Coke, the meal has 1,700 calories.
In the 1950s, soda sizes at fast-food restaurants were about eight ounces, but a child-size soda is now 12 ounces. Servings for hamburgers and fries have also increased. Early fast-food hamburger patties were about 1.5 ounces, Young said, compared to the five ounces in the new Angus Burger. That's nearly the amount of meat the USDA recommends an adult eat in one day, 5.5 ounces.
Americans spend half of their food budget on purchases eaten outside the home, and these meals tend to be higher in fat and calories, and lower in fibre. Meanwhile, prices have not risen proportionally to portion sizes, meaning that larger meals are usually a better monetary value.
Young and Nestle's study looked at portion sizes at McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King from 2002-2006 and compared their findings to examples from 2002 and 1998. They found current sizes are similar to those offered in 1998, but two to five times larger than what was sold when the first McDonald's restaurant opened in 1955.
McDonald's phased out its 42 ounce Supersize drink and 7,1 ounce Supersize fries in 2004, but Burger King and Wendy's actually increased their portion sizes during the time period of the study. As McDonald's eliminated Supersize, Burger King introduced a 42 ounce drink. (Almost 1, 2 litters)
They also offer a burger weighing 12 ounces, more than two days' worth of meat under USDA serving guidelines.
Large portion sizes are an important factor in obesity for three reasons. They provide more calories at each meal, they encourage people to eat more and they lead people to underestimate the number of calories they're consuming.
Essentially, if people are offered more food, they eat it. "I found in my research that there was a perfect parallel between the rise in obesity rates and big portions, because big portions have more calories," said Dr. Lisa Young, author of 'The Portion Teller'. "We eat more when more is put in front of us. We don't even realise it."
Several fast food restaurants have added healthier menu items in recent years. McDonald's offers salads and deli style sandwiches, and has made apple slices an option along with fries for its Happy Meal children's menu. But even if these options give the entire menu a halo effect of healthfulness, traditional fare like hamburgers and fries still make up the bulk of sales.
* 1 ounce = 29 ml