Cinching the Belt on America’s Expanding Waistlines

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Editor’s Note: Jennifer Benson is a Registered Dietician with a private practice in Los Angeles, California. If you have any questions regarding your diet or proper nutrition, and would like to ask Jennifer a question, you can contact her by email at, or if you are in the Los Angeles area, you can contact her for an appointment at (310) 871-3981.

Obesity in America has become an epidemic. It is estimated that approximately two-thirds of Americans are overweight. Why, despite the many “diets” out there, is this country’s waistline still expanding? Let’s take a look at just three of the contributing factors.

No matter where Americans eat, whether at home or in a restaurant, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that portion sizes are larger today than they were 18 to 23 years ago. On average, daily calories consumed by individuals ages two and older have increased by 150 since 1977. That is almost a whopping 55,000 calories a year, which in turn results in a 22 pound weight gain per year if these excess calories are not burned off.

The USDA also informs us that the number of people dining out has increased by 14% over the past 19 years. Busier lifestyles have lead Americans to consume meals away from home due to the speed and convenience. America’s consumption of fast food has increased 8% over the past 19 years, while restaurant dining has increased by 5%. Restaurant foods are generally higher in calories, and the portion sizes of restaurant and fast foods are usually twice the recommended size.

Exercise has become low on the list of priorities in America due to time restraints. It is ironic that while we are consuming more calories, our nation’s physical activity level has decreased. Any extra calories we consume are stored as fat, especially if those calories are not burned off. The human body is a very efficient machine. To loose weight, one must either eat less, exercise more, or a combination of both.

So what can Americans do to avoid the obesity epidemic? The answer is to work hard! Good old fashioned exercise and proper eating is the best way to achieve positive long term results. The best way to make lifestyle changes is to start small; the following suggestions can help get you started.


Most people believe that whatever is piled on his or her plate is a portion. Not so! There are defined guidelines on what a portion is. A great resource to use when it comes to portion sizes is the Food Guide Pyramid. However, just because one cuts down on portions, does not always mean that you need to cut down on the amount of food. It is about the combination of foods that are eaten. For example compare these two meals:

Meal #1 — Calories

• 2 cups spaghetti — 360
• 1 cup pasta sauce — 280
• 1 cup salad — 25
• 3 Tbsp. regular dressing — 180
• 1 cup 2% milk — 120

Total for Meal #1 — 965

Meal #2 — Calories

• 1/2 cup spaghetti — 90
• ½ cup pasta sauce — 140
• 3.5 ounce chicken breast — 175
• 1 cup salad — 25
• ½ cup broccoli — 50
• 2 Tbsp. low-fat dressing — 80
• 1 cup 1% milk — 100

Total for Meal #2 — 660

As you can see meal #2 offers more variety than meal #1, and 305 calories less. By limiting portions more variety can be added, and calories can be reduced at the same time.


The following tips will help in making wise food choices when dining in a sit down or fast food restaurant.

• When it comes to soup, choose broth based over cream soups to save on calories.
• Avoid breaded or fried foods; instead choose baked, broiled or grilled.
• Avoid cream sauces, or ask for them on the side. Then you can limit the amount you add to your food, or dip your fork in the sauce and then use it to pick up your food. The same goes for salad dressing.
• Before taking the first bite of your meal, cut it in half and ask to have one half of it boxed. Restaurant portions are usually twice the amount you should really be eating anyway.
• When ordering pizza, ask the restaurant to put half the cheese that they normally put on the pizza.
• Avoid super sizing fast food meals, for example:

Super Sized Calories

• Big Mac — 510
• Super Size Fries — 540
• Super Size Coke — 400

Total calories super sized meal — 1450

Regular Calories

• Big Mac — 510
• Small Fries — 210
• Regular Diet Coke — 0

Total calories small meal — 720

By super sizing, the calories double.

• Choose grilled chicken sandwiches over burgers. Ask the restaurant to skip the mayonnaise, and request a packet of sweet and sour sauce to put on your sandwich. By deleting the mayonnaise, you can cut your calories by about 200.


The benefits of exercise are numerous, not only does it burn calories, but it improves the health of the cardiovascular system. The American College of Sports Medicine offers the latest exercise guidelines (PDF).

The activity pyramid is another good reference for exercise guidelines. With our busy American lifestyle it is hard to find time to exercise. Remember, however, if you don’t have enough time to exercise regularly, any movement you can do is better than not moving at all!

• At the grocery store park as far away as you can to get some extra walking in.
• Instead of taking elevators, use the stairs.
• Use part of your lunch or break time to take a brisk walk.
• Housework and gardening will burn extra calories.
• Do push-ups, sit-ups, or floor exercises while watching television.


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