August 9, 2007

Speaking With...: Lisa Young

Dr. Lisa R. Young, RD, CDN, is a world renowned portion size expert.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Economics and Health Care Administration from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, she received her doctorate and master’s degrees in nutrition from New York University, where she has served as adjunct professor for 15 years.

Her doctorate thesis focused on the link between increased portion sizes and rising obesity rates in the United States, and eventually led to the publishing of her first book, The Portion Teller: The No-Diet Reality Guide to Eating, Cheating, and Losing Weight Permanently.

Over the past few years, Dr. Young has been featured on The Today Show, CNN, MSNBC, ABC World News Tonight, and several magazines, including O, Good Housekeeping, Forbes, Shape, Allure, Newsweek, and Elle.

Her clips, appearances, and research papers can be viewed at her website -- The Portion Teller.

I was fortunate enough to talk to her one on one about the United States’ increasing portion distortion problem.

Your research clearly demonstrates a correlation between larger portion sizes and an increase in obesity, and there are studies showing that the more food we are provided, the more we consume. Does this mean our bodies are not efficient hunger self-regulators?

Large portions have contributed to growing obesity rates because they contain more calories than small portions.

I think the problem is that because we are surrounded by large food portions at cheap prices which encourage us to “eat more,”-- whether at fast-food places, movie theaters, bakeries, delis -- we have lost our ability to regulate how hungry we are.

Unfortunately, we eat with our “eyes” and when we see big portions of food around, even if we don’t even like the taste, we tend to eat it. And then, instead of feeling “comfortably full,” we end up feeling “stuffed.”

Everyone knows a Big Mac and large fries add up to caloric overload. However, are there "healthy sounding/looking" or "harmless" foods people eat large quantities of, unaware of the high number of calories they are taking in?

The vitamin enhanced waters and the gumballs and gummy bears sold as “multivitamins” for kids!

People often like to rationalize why they eat something and when they see that they are getting a food marketed as a vitamin or enhanced with vitamins they think it is health food and they completely overlook the fact that the foods contain any calories.

I counsel clients who would never drink soda but they are big fans of vitamin enhanced waters (until, of course, I tell them to read the labels!) Another healthy sounding beverage which people think is not too caloric is the jumbo fruit smoothies. While they do contain some fruit, they are also loaded with sugar and calories.

Rule of thumb: we are better off “chewing” our calories than “slurping” them.

Are there specific places, events, or times where we are most prone to portion distortion?

Two of the biggest offenders would be the fast-food places ad the movie theaters. When McDonald’s first opened, a soda was seven ounces; today it is 32 ounces.

And a bucket of popcorn is so big these days that it is large enough to feed an entire row. Also, the large popcorn at the movie theater is a better value so consumers are encouraged to “supersize”.

Baked goods such as muffins and bagels have also blown up in size; a typical muffin at a deli is equivalent to 6-cups of cereal and a bagel is equivalent to 5 bread slices. People have no problem grabbing a muffin or bagel on their way to work but would think twice before consuming 5 slices of bread in one sitting.

Many times when people hear the words "portion control", they incorrectly envision a lunch of two lettuce leaves, three tomato slices, and one jumbo shrimp. What are some tips you would suggest for people who are looking to lose weight but need to see a lot of food on their plate?

It is okay to eat large portions of certain foods as long as these foods are healthy and not loaded with too many calories. In fact, filling up on low-calorie healthy foods often helps people stick to a weight-loss program so they don’t feel deprived.

Some examples would be to eat fresh fruit such as berries and melons which contain a high water content. Starting a meal with a healthy low-fat salad with a large assortment of veggies (watch the dressing, of course) and including cooked veggies such as broccoli and asparagus with your dinner adds volume to your food. An added bonus is that fruits and vegetables are also rich in vitamins and minerals.

Finally, a great snack for “volume lovers” is air popped popcorn.

Do you find it strange and frustrating that restaurants and fast food chains selling smaller entrees and desserts specifically label these as exclusively for "children under 12"? Why not call this part of the menu "for the portion conscious" and make it more acceptable for adults to order from it?

I do indeed. And I completely agree with you. It would be a huge step in the right direction if portion-conscious adults were able to order these foods as well.

Throughout your years of research, what are two or three statistics that still stand out as truly surprising or shocking?

I found it truly shocking just how much portions have grown. Fast-food portions are two to five times larger than they were when they were first introduced.

While I mentioned the McDonald’s soda example above, it is truly shocking that 7-Eleven markets a “Big Gulp” containing 64 oz of soda—a half gallon!—with nearly 800 calories and 50 teaspoons of sugar! The company first opened with the 16 oz size.

What is even more shocking is that cup holders found in cars have also become larger to accommodate these drinks.

Also, while a fast-food hamburger used to contain only 1.5 oz of meat, today they often contain 8 or even 12 oz of meat in one sandwich. Consider Hardee’s Monster Thickburger which contains 2/3 of a pound of meat (12 oz) along with several cheese and bacon slices, special sauce, and white bread. No wonder it contains 1400 calories.

Some of these jumbo foods contain enough calories for an entire day.

You were featured in "SuperSize Me!", which resulted in consumers becoming more aware of the outrageous sizes offered at many fast food establishments. Have there been positive changes in this realm?

With the focus on increasing obesity rates in both adults and children, we would hope that food companies would scale back on portions. However, according to my most recent research on portion sizes at large fast-food chains, published in the Journal of Public Health Policy, portions are not getting any smaller.

In fact, in many cases, they are getting bigger. Just last year, Burger King introduced BK Stacker sandwiches in four sizes: Single, Double, Triple, and Quad. The Quad size has four beef patties, weighs over 11 oz, and contains 1000 calories.

The largest fast-food companies are also involved in sleight of name. Last year, Wendy’s, for example, discontinued the terms “Biggie” and “Great Biggie” to describe its French fries and soda. However, the former “Biggie” soda is now called “Medium,” and the company introduced a new larger size called “Large.”

While McDonald’s discontinued the “Supersize” soda in 2004, it is now marketing a new soda called “Hugo,” the exact same volume and calorie content as the discontinued “Supersize.” And, unfortunately, we eat more when large portions end up on our plates.

Dr. Young is a top of the line, sought-after private practitioner in New York City who is “available for individual counseling sessions on a wide variety of nutrition-related issues including obesity and weight control, disease prevention, wellness, hyperlipidemia, hypertension, diabetes, osteoporosis, eating disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, pregnancy, lactation, menopause, and vegetarianism.”

If interested, you may contact her at 212-560-2565 or:

Thanks again to Dr. Young for offering her time and knowledge!

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