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Who’s to blame for the obesity crisis?

Many, many weight loss diets come and go, but the sad fact is Americans have gotten fatter every year since 1990.  While restaurants have been the easy-to-blame scapegoats for this obesity epidemic, they’re not the only ones at fault, said Dr. Jim Painter at the innovation session entitled “Your Brain on Food: Why Consumers Eat As They Do” held on Monday, March 26 during the 2012 Restaurant Leadership Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona.

During a spirited one-hour presentation, Dr. Painter pointed out that restaurant companies like Panera Bread (serving half-portions), McDonald’s (offering whole-grain oatmeal for breakfast) and others are making a big effort to steer customers on a path toward healthier eating. But the truth is, Americans are “mindless eaters”—most of us simply lose track of what and how much we’re consuming.  Painter shared five reasons why this happens and what we can do to solve the problem.

Portion sizes are too big. The monster burger, large serving of fries, and  quart-size thick shake can weigh in at 1,420 calories—but these are not the only choices available. “The portions doled out these days are so much bigger than they were 20 years ago, and American eaters have to be aware of that,” Painter said. “We don’t have to give up fast food—we just have to ‘portion-size’ it instead of supersizing it. Get the portion size that’s right for your weight and size.”

The size and shape of your serving container make a difference. In an ice cream eating experiment Painter conducted with young adults, half were given large bowls and spoons and the other half were given smaller bowls and tiny spoons. The first group ate twice as much ice cream and went back for seconds, while the second group was satisfied when they finished all that was in their bowl. “Counting calories is not the answer—downsizing the plate is the way to go. But you have to present food so that it looks like an ample serving,” he explained.

Visibility and convenience have an effect on consumption. Moving candy from a desktop to a drawer decreased consumption by 30%, Painter found in another experiment. If people had to stand up to get the candy off the shelf, they ate 60% less. But eaters will react the same way to healthier items. If you want to boost the consumption of carrots or raisins, for example, just make them more visible and easier to access, Painter noted.

How foods are described influences eating. Customers were more likely to order a dish described as “succulent, Italian fish” than “broiled fish” when listed on a restaurant menu. But words like “dietetic” and “low-cal” will chase diners away.

Visual cues are important. When people can see how much they’ve consumed, they will stop eating when they’re full. In another of Painter’s experiments, waiters left empty beer bottles and piles of chicken bones on one table, but cleared a second table of everything. The second table kept ordering more because they lost track of how much they ate. “Self-monitoring works,” Painter believes, “tracking what you eat, even writing down everything that goes into your mouth.”

Painter ended by challenging the industry to launch a one-day campaign to educate the public on mindful eating and portion control in a unified way. He pledged $5,000 to have his grad students work up a business plan to get this initiative off the ground and asked for others to follow suit. “The solution should come from the restaurant industry. People in this industry are the ones who can make a real dent in the obesity epidemic,” he concluded.

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