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Penny Smart...Pound Foolish


What do I mean by "penny smart, pound foolish," and how does it relate to fast food? All of us want to receive high value for our hard-earned dollars. The concept of "more for your money" is most apparent in the food industry.

What do I mean by “penny smart, pound foolish,” and how does it relate to fast food? All of us want to receive high value for our hard-earned dollars. The concept of “more for your money” is most apparent in the food industry.

For an extra few cents you can double the serving size of your French fries and soda. At first glance, this looks like a great bargain. The truth is these larger serving sizes provide you with a lot more than you bargained for.

What’s a Serving?

How much food really constitutes one serving? According to the Canada Food Guide, the term “serving” has completely lost its meaning over the last 30 years. Portion sizes have grown out of control, and so has our idea of a normal-sized meal.

We are so confused over what constitutes a “regular” serving size that it is also affecting the meals we cook ourselves. Studies show that homemade hamburgers have grown nearly 50 percent in size from 5.7 ounces (162 grams) in 1977 to 8.4 ounces (238 grams) in 1996.

Serving Sizes Up–Activity Levels Down

Logic would suggest that with portion sizes growing enormously, there must be a lot of leftovers around. Unfortunately, this is not the case. As portion sizes have grown out of control, so have our appetites, and therefore our waist sizes. According to a 2001 survey by the American Institute for Cancer Research, 67 percent of Americans usually eat everything or almost everything on their plates.

What many North Americans have failed to observe is that to compensate for the increasing calories we consume, we must increase our activity levels. In fact, we have not seen a commensurate increase in activity levels, and because of this, we are seeing changes in weight and health that no other generation has witnessed.

Serving Up Poor Health

Eating very large portions of fast food has certainly begun to take a toll on our health. A recent long-term study documents the effects of eating fast food on the chronic diseases of Western civilization: obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

Three thousand young people were followed for 15 years in order to study the effects of fast food on their health. The results were alarming.

Those people who said they visited fast-food outlets twice a week or more gained 10 pounds more over the course of the study than those who ate fast food less than once a week.

The same people also had more than double the chance of developing insulin resistance, considered a predictor of type 2 diabetes–the form of the disease linked to obesity. Fast food is not only high in calories, it is also high in sodium, saturated fats, and trans fats, setting the stage for high blood pressure and heart disease.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, a large number of fast-food options have little or no nutritional value.

Serve It Up Smart

Fast food is here to stay. Experts warn that unless we begin to modify our choices when “grabbing something fast to eat,” we are going to create a generation of very unhealthy people who create an enormous burden on the health care system.

There are ways of making healthier choices when eating fast food; the key is to take the time to educate ourselves about our options.

Do you want to know the real secret to being “penny safe and pound smart”? The next time you go to a fast-food restaurant with a few friends, split that large meal three ways.

Choose Fast, but Choose Wisely

We are all so busy these days that at some point we all find ourselves taking the fast-food option. The good news is that not all fast-food meals are created equal. An increasing number of fast-food restaurants are offering more nutritious alternatives and providing patrons with nutrition information. Here are some general guidelines to follow in order to make more nutritionally sound choices.

  • Choose grilled or broiled foods. Many restaurants offer grilled chicken either on a salad or as a sandwich. Some even offer deli-style turkey. These can be a tasty, leaner alternative to burgers.
  • When you choose your sandwich skip the sauces, cheese, or bacon. Instead choose lettuce, tomato, and onion.
  • Keep in mind that salads can have as many calories and grams of fat as other meals. For example, a salad with crispy-coated chicken substantially increases fat and calories. Choose a salad that has many greens and vegetables such as broccoli or peppers. Choose low-calorie or nonfat dressing and avoid Chinese noodles or tortilla chips.
  • A baked potato can be a healthy choice. Ask for the butter, sour cream, or cheese on the side and use them sparingly.
  • If you order pizza, ask for a thin crust and less cheese; avoid meat toppings; choose low-fat toppings such as onions, mushrooms, green peppers, tomatoes, and other vegetables; and eat only one or two slices.
  • Choose a side dish other than French fries. Many restaurants now offer side salads or fresh fruit as alternatives.
  • Avoid soda; choose water or fresh juice instead.
  • Ask for the nutrition facts information sheet from the restaurant. The restaurant should either have them posted or provide a brochure. You can also check the restaurant’s website.

Serving Up Trouble

We have all become familiar with the term “super sizing” used by the McDonald’s chain to describe their extra-large sizes. Although they no longer use the term “super sized” on their menu, I wondered exactly how many extra calories are contained in a large-sized meal compared to a regular meal. The first thing that I had to figure out was, what is a regular meal? How much bigger are portion sizes today than they were 50 or 60 years ago?

When most of the fast-food restaurants opened, there was only one size of meal for sale. That size is now considered a regular hamburger, small fries, and a small (8 oz/250 mL) soda. Considering that the average person eats approximately 2,000 calories per day, was that really enough for one meal? Let’s compare McDonald’s small versus large servings.

Food item Calories Fat Saturated Trans fat Sodium
Hamburger 250 8g 3g 0.2g 510g
Small fries 230 11g 4g 1.5g 190g
Small (345 mL) soda 150 0g 0g 0g 5g
Totals 630 19g 7g 1.7g 705g
All this adds up to a grand total of 630 calories and 19 g of fat (with a definite lack of nutrients). Let’s compare that to a large meal:
Double Big Mac® 700 40g 17g 1g 1520g
Large fries 570 28g 11g 3.5g 330g
Large (730 mL) soda 320 0g 0g 0g 10g
Totals 1590 68g 28g 4.5g 1860g
This certainly doesn’t leave many calories for the rest of the day. That’s almost an extra 1,000 calories in one meal. If you consider that you only need to eat an extra 3,500 calories to gain a pound of fat, it is easy to explain why the North American waistline seems to be expanding.

Serving Up Weighty Problems

Alarming statistics from a 2004 Health Canada study paint a depressing picture of increasing weight issues:

  Overweight Obese
Under 18 years old 19.5 % 7.8 %
Over 18 years old 33 % 15 %

Both figures are up 1 percent since the last survey in 2001.

Is Super Size the New Normal?

Hamburger meals have definitely received some bad press due to their negative health effects, lack of nutrients, and large portion sizes. As I am sure you know, entire movies have been produced about it. Some people have even launched lawsuits against these fast-food chains, alleging that eating too much of their food made them obese. Hamburger meals are certainly not the only foods being super-sized these days.

For example:

  • In North America the croissant is larger and contains about 100 more calories than one in France.
  • When the bagel was introduced to North America, it weighed 1 1/2 ounces (42.5 g)
    and contained 116 calories. Today’s bagel is about triple the size at 4 to 5 ounces (115 to 132 g) and well over 300 calories.
  • The Mexican quesadilla has doubled in calories and increased in size. In Mexico, a quesadilla is a 5-inch (12.7-cm) tortilla containing around 540 calories and 32 grams of fat. The North American quesadilla is typically 10 inches (25.4 cm) and one serving often contains 1,200 calories and 70 grams of fat.


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