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Doing the math

(article, Caroline Cummins)

Even if you missed "Super Size Me," Morgan Spurlock's 2004 documentary film about living on a diet of pure McDonald's fare, you've probably noticed that your food comes in ever-bigger packaging. Fast-food chains offer the "super sizes" that Spurlock consumed, while coffee chains ditched the 8-ounce small cup in favor of a 12-ounce "small" a few years ago. "Family" restaurant chains such as Claim Jumper and The Cheesecake Factory serve enormous platters of food at relatively affordable prices. Meanwhile, two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, and their ranks are, um, widening.

In 2005, the USDA revamped the Food Guide Pyramid it had touted since 1992. The new pyramid, tagged MyPyramid, has vertical instead of horizontal dividers, showing how skinny your daily intake of fats really should be. The new design also ditches the old "suggested servings," such as the once-recommended six to 11 daily servings from the "bread, cereal, rice, and pasta" group. MyPyramid now has a chart of "Food Intake Patterns," showing how many cups or tablespoons of a food you should eat depending on how many calories you need to eat each day.

The Harvard School of Public Health has its own, far more detailed pyramid, titled the Healthy Eating Pyramid. Unlike the USDA pyramid, which is a simple graphic, Harvard's pyramid includes suggested daily servings.

Easily recognized quantities, such as cups and tablespoons, take much of the guesswork out of "servings." Servings are listed in the nutrition facts on food labels; portions are the amounts you actually eat. A bag of chips might contain four servings, but if you eat half the bag, your portion was two servings. Whoops.

How can you shrink your portions? In restaurants, try sharing or splitting your order. At home, use smaller plates for serving. Bulk up your meals with fruits and vegetables instead of fats and carbs; you'll feel full without the calories. 

And guess what? Coffee shops will still serve you an 8-ounce drink, even if they don't post the size on their menus. All you have to do is ask.