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The Globe and Mail

Feeling supersized? Could be today's mega fast food portions

Still wondering why you're feeling fat? Check out this new chart from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing how much fast food portion sizes have changed since the 1950s. They've gone up, if you didn't guess already: The average servings of fries and hamburgers in the United States have tripled in size, while soda servings have swollen from seven ounces to 42 ounces – six times as big.

"The average restaurant meal today is more four times larger than in the 1950s," the public health agency writes in a note accompanying the chart. "And adults are, on average, 26 pounds heavier."

The centre advises restaurant-goers to: "Take control of the amount of food that ends up on your plate by splitting an entrée with a friend. Or ask the wait person for a 'to-go' box and wrap up half your meal as soon as it's brought to the table."

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A website of The Weight of the Nation, the much-discussed HBO series about obesity, advises readers to never eat from a bag, to use smaller plates and to preportion snacks in small containers and sealable bags.

Restaurants have tried to lower portion sizes, believe it or not, but not always to great effect. As this 2007 New York Times story put it: "Customers have come to associate huge quantities of food with value, a proposition that makes reducing portions difficult. Restaurants also point out that even when consumers say they want smaller portions or healthier choices, they often do not order those options."

To wit: the U.S. chain Ruby Tuesday, which tried in 2004 to reduce portion sizes and print nutritional info on its menus. "Consumers complained about the changes, and after about five months, Ruby Tuesday plumped the portions and provided nutritional information only when asked," the Times reported.

The same story dives into the fascinating history of supersizing. Restaurants do it because it earns them extra money, the paper reports. "It is hard to pinpoint when the restaurant industry figured out that it could cash in on larger portions. But the late David Wallerstein, a theatre manager from Chicago and a long-time director of McDonald's, is sometimes credited with the supersizing trend. In the mid-1960s, Mr. Wallerstein realized that customers were reluctant to buy two bags of popcorn because they felt gluttonous, but would happily buy one jumbo bag," it says.

"He later persuaded Ray Kroc, McDonald's legendary leader, to use the same strategy with French fries, and the race for ever-larger portions was on, according to a book by Greg Critser, Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World.

"Then, in the mid-1970s, a Coke representative tried to sell 7-Eleven on the idea of a 32-ounce cup for its struggling fountain-drink business. Dennis Potts, a mid-level manager at 7-Eleven at the time, said he thought the cups were 'absolutely insane' because they were so big, but he accepted two free cases and gave them to a store to try.

"The next Monday, the franchisee called, asking for more cups. The Big Gulp was born. The 32-ounce drink cost the same as a 16-ounce bottle of soda, then about 40 cents."

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Are you more likely to buy a food item if it's extra large?

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