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L.A.'s New Portion-Size Campaign


The New York City soda ban made headlines around the globe, and now another major US city is launching a public anti-obesity initiative.

Last week, Los Angeles residents were introduced to "Choose Less, Weigh Less," a portion-control campaign designed to help Angelinos slash surplus calories. According to organizers, nearly 24 percent of L.A. county residents were obese in 2011, a whopping 74 percent increase since 1997.

A purely educational endeavor (no bans on In-N-Out Double-Doubles or burritos the size of a catcher’s mitt), the campaign will include ads on buses and billboards, as well as TV, radio, and social media outreach. Visual comparisons are the crux of the project, essentially side-by-side photos of different sized meals and the number of calories saved by downsizing.

Check out some of the comparisons, such as a six-inch sub (460 calories) rather than a foot-long (920 calories) or two pancakes, eggs and bacon strips (640 calories) versus four pancakes and bacon strips with the eggs (1,050 calories).

Each ad also points out, "2,000 calories a day is all most adults need." That helps, because thinking of 2,000 as a daily limit makes it much easier to put 920 in perspective compared to 460. But unfortunately 2,000 is just an average, and many of my female clients’ needs are much closer to 1,600 (check out my previous post about calorie counting mistakes and how to determine your personal calorie needs).

RELATED: You may be surprised to know how many calories are in some of your favorite meals, like these 12 brunch orders worse than a steak dinner!

I split my time between New York City and Los Angeles, so I’ve experienced both initiatives. And while I think the NYC soda ban was a bad idea, there are a lot of things I like about L.A.'s "Choose Less, Weigh Less." However, If I had designed the campaign, I would have taken it a few steps further.

First, I would highlight the calorie savings for each comparison to prevent having to do math in your head. Second, I would show a) how much exercise you’d have to do to burn that same number of calories and b) how much weight you’d gain if you didn’t prevent those surplus calories from getting socked away in your fat cells.

For example, the pancake meal comparison slashes 410 calories. To burn that, you’d have to walk briskly for a full hour. Failing to slash those excess calories every day could snowball into packing on an extra 40 pounds over a year’s time (think 40 16-ounce tubs of shortening). Now that puts a few extra pancakes and strips of bacon each morning in perspective!

That said, I don't believe that smaller portions is the be-all, end-all for weight control. In fact, proportions are far more important. I have some pretty high-volume recipes in my newest book, but the bulk of the meals are veggies paired with reasonable portions of a whole grain, lean protein, and plant-based fat, dressed up with natural seasonings.

RELATED: Struggling to eat more produce? Try these 16 insanely tasty ways to eat more veggies.

For example, two cups of raw veggies (such as tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, and peppers) sautéed in one tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil with garlic and herbs, and tossed with a half cup of whole wheat couscous and a half cup of cannellini beans is more than three cups of food—for only about 360 calories, the same amount in one large slice of cheese pizza.

Also, just cutting back on portions of unhealthy food is far less effective (or healthy) than eating larger portions of nutrient-rich whole foods. For 150 to 200 calories you could eat one half cup (one quarter of a pint or about the size of half a baseball) of Ben & Jerry's Frozen Yogurt Low Fat Cherry Garcia or a full cup of nonfat plain organic Greek yogurt mixed with one half cup of frozen, thawed unsweetened cherries and two tablespoons of dark chocolate chips.

Bottom line, no matter where you live, keep these key weight control tips in mind:

  • If you use calorie info, make sure your frame of reference is accurate—many people overestimate their daily needs.
  • Cut back on portions of French fries, baked goods, and other splurge foods. That just makes sense.
  • Remember that it is possible to eat larger portions and take in fewer calories—if you choose the right foods.
  • Focus on proportions as well as portions—pair smaller portions of healthy calorie dense foods, such as whole grains and nuts, with larger portions of good-for-you low cal foods like veggies and fresh fruit.

The truth is, the big picture of nutrition and weight control is a lot more complex than just calories in, calories out, or eat less, move more. In my book, quality, balance, and consistency are also critical pieces of the puzzle.

What’s your take on this topic? Do you get confused by portion control messages? Please tweet your thoughts and questions to @cynthiasass and @Shape_Magazine

Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.


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