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According to a new report that compares Americans’ modern eating habits to consumption trends in the 1970s, we have a long way to go in terms of achieving good health. One of the biggest problems is that we continue to eat too darn much.

A possible scapegoat for our overflowing plates is the restaurant industry: Stats show that Americans are dining out more frequently at the same time that restaurant portion sizes are increasing. But it’s too easy to blame our health problems on the restaurant next door.

What’s the Deal?

The report, compiled by advocacy group The Center for Science in the Public Interest, tracks changes in the American diet between 1970 and 2010. Most of the findings are hardly surprising: We eat about 500 calories more per day than we did in 1970, three times as much cheese, and a whole lot more added sugar. We’re consuming more grain products, and although we eat more fruits and vegetables now than we did back then, it’s still not enough.

The New York Times spoke to the nutritionist who compiled the report, Bonnie Liebman, and she pointed out a few factors that might be contributing to the current obesity epidemic. For one thing, Americans consume too many added fats and oils, even in the form of “healthy” alternatives such as olive oil that can still pack a ton of extra calories. Another major area of concern is “portion distortion” at restaurants. While that idea makes a lot of mathematical sense (bigger portions = more calories consumed), we shouldn’t be too quick to place all the blame on Mickey D’s.

Why It Matters

Turns out we’ve all been starring in a real-life “Supersize Me” for the past 60 years. Since the 1950s, restaurant portion sizes have grown tremendously, so that what once was a 3.9-ounce hamburger is now a whopping 12 ounces on average. But fear of the Franken-burger isn’t keeping anyone indoors: As of 2011, Americans were eating a third of their calories at restaurants — almost twice as much as they did in the 1970s. Nearly 90 percent of people say they eat at fast-food joints at least once or twice a month.

All this dining out might be great for the economy, but it has harsher effects on our waistlines. Studies have found that the more often we eat at restaurants, especially fast-food restaurants, the higher our percentage of body fat and the more we weighOvereating in America: association between restaurant food consumption and body fatness in healthy adult men and women ages 19 to 80. McCrory, M.A., Fuss, P.J., Hays, N.P., et al. Energy Metabolism Laboratory, Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, Boston, MA, USA. Obesity Research 1999 Nov;7(6):564-71.Fast food restaurant use among women in the Pound of Prevention study: dietary, behavioral and demographic correlates. French, S.A., Harnack, L., Jeffery, R.W. Division of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, USA. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders 2000 Oct;24(10):1353-9.. The good news is that people are taking steps, at the government and individual level, to make the restaurant experience more healthful. Starting in 2014, the Affordable Care Act will require chain restaurants to start posting calorie counts, making it that much easier to figure out what constitutes an appropriate meal. And across the U.S., different food certification programs are popping up, each with its own way of assessing the nutritional value of restaurant meals.

Unfortunately, revamping American eating habits will also require some new perspectives in the family kitchen. Studies have found that, as portion sizes are increasing in restaurants, they’re growing at home, tooPatterns and trends in food portion sizes, 1977-1998. Nielsen, S.J., Popkin, B.M. Department of Nutrition, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC USA. JAMA 2003 Jan 22-29;289(4):450-3..

While this report and similar research may tell us what and how much we’re eating, they don’t tell us why. It’s hard to find research on people’s reasons for dining outside the home, but potential factors include not having time to cook or not knowing how to. And in terms of why we let ourselves overeat at restaurants and at home, perhaps we just don’t know any more what suitably sized meals for our bodies look like. In that case, the answer isn’t shrinking the size of the spaghetti marinara on the menu. Instead, a stronger solution might be teaching people what their bodies actually need through health education. That way, when faced with a heaping bowl of pasta, they’ll feel better able to make a sensible choice.

The Takeaway

For sure, bigger-than-our-head burgers may be contributing to our tendency to overeat. But restaurants aren’t necessarily the root cause of our unhealthy eating habits. And avoiding the drive-through clearly isn’t the only solution: Even in our own homes, we can make less healthy choices or go overboard and serve ourselves too much. Instead of blaming the restaurant industry, we should focus on teaching people to be mindful of what they’re eating in any situation, and to develop good eating habits that last a lifetime.

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