Sun-baked tourists by the hundreds jam into Benjamin's Calabash Restaurant in Myrtle Beach, S.C., each evening, drawn by the establishment's 171 item buffet. On any given night, patrons paying $28 a head will make multiple trips to the buffet to make sure they get their money's worth.
Chances are good they will also leave after consuming enough calories to last a couple of days.
Restaurants offering "all you can eat" are popular with many consumers, but may be one of the reasons America has a weight problem. When there is no limit to what we can consume, we tend to lose all sense of proportion. How much should we be eating on a daily basis? How much is too much?
Health experts tend to agree that the problem lies in two areas; Americans eat portions that are significantly greater than they need for nourishment and they tend to eat too much unhealthy food. Often, we do it without thinking about it.
So, if we tend to eat too much, how much should we be eating each day? Dr. Mary Lou Gavin, Medical Editor at KidsHealth.org, says it all depends on your age, gender, height and weight, and activity level.
"In general, I don't recommend counting calories but it may be helpful for people to have some idea what their caloric requirements are," Gavin told ConsumerAffairs.com.
There are a number of calorie calculators online, where you can get an idea of how much food you should be consuming on a daily basis. For example, a male, age 59, 5 feet, 11 inches tall, weighing 175 pounds and getting moderate exercise can -- according to one calculator -- consume 2200 calories a day to maintain weight and 1800 calories to lose fat.
"The MyPyramid website is a good resource to find out an estimate of calories and it also provides a food plan that breaks it down into servings of each particular food group, Gavin said. "Planning meals with food groups in mind is a more practical approach than counting calories on a daily basis."
Portion size, of course, is a big part of healthy meal planning. That's where vigilance is required while shopping. Portions of food -- especially packaged food -- tend to be larger than they were a few years ago.
As an example, the average bagel had a three inch diameter 20 years ago and had 140 calories. Today, bagels are normally six inches in diameter and have about 350 calories, with half of a person's recommended number of grain servings for the day.
Some consumer advocates blame the food industry for feeding America's appetite, as restaurants try to outdo one another in offering huge servings. Gavin says competition may play some role in consumers' growing appetites as they tend to perceive greater value in a generous helping. Businesses, too, see an advantage in serving up giant sized portions.
"The original notion was that there is a higher profit margin with larger portions," she said. "That idea may have come full circle as food companies have found a way to make money off of portion controlled packages."
When you add excessive amounts of fat, sweetener and sodium to the excessive portions of food we eat, the health problems are compounded. In its recent list of the Top Ten Worst Foods, the Center For Science In the Public Interest (CSPI) selected Marie Callender's (16.5 oz) Chicken Pot Pie. The nutrition label notes it has 520 calories, 11 grams of saturated fat, and 800 mg of sodium.
But upon closer inspection, you will see that the pie is actually two serving portions. In other words, one person should eat only half the pot pie.
But who eats half a pot pie? Eat the entire pie, as most people probably do, and you're consuming 1,040 calories, 22 grams of saturated fat, and 1,600 mg of sodium, which equals an entire day's worth.
What makes the list of the 10 best foods? Not surprisingly, these foods tend not to come in a box, bag, can or wrapper. The sweet potato tops the list. CSPI calls it "a nutritional all-star," noting it's loaded with carotenoids, vitamin C, potassium, and fiber.
"Bake and then mix in some unsweetened applesauce or crushed pineapple for extra moisture and sweetness," CSPI suggests.
Mangos and watermelon also make the "best food" list.
Stick with plants
Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health have published their own healthy eating pyramid, echoing CSPI's endorsement of fresh fruit and vegetables as a dietary mainstay.
"Go with plants," the researchers advise. "Eating a plant-based diet is healthiest. Choose plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and healthy fats, like olive and canola oil."
Change may not come overnight, as some habits die hard. But Gavin offers a tip for both controlling portions and eating healthier, something she calls the divided plate.
"Think of your plate divided in four equal sections," Gavin said. "Half the plate is for fruits and/or vegetables, one quarter is for protein foods, the remaining quarter of the plate is for starchy foods."
When eating out, look for restaurants that provide nutritional information, and choose something healthy from the menu. At the grocery store, look past claims -- such as low fat or whole grain -- and look at the nutrition facts label and ingredient list to see the nutritional value of the food as a whole.
Reducing Portions and Eating Healthier Key To Controlling Weight...