Why do we still eat this way?

The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Xtreme Eating Awards went to nine "winning" chain restaurant meals especially high in calories, fat, sugar and salt. The Cheesecake Factory got three of them. (Tom LeGro/The Washington Post)

We know we shouldn't. We hate ourselves when we do. And yet, with all the information available about proper nutrition and the dangers of obesity, we still eat things like Red Robin's "A.1. Peppercorn burger with bacon, Bottomless Steak Fries and a Monster Salted Caramel Milkshake." That combo captured one of nine "Xtreme Eating" awards from the Center for Science in the Public Interest last week, clocking in with 3,540 calories (nearly two days' worth for an average person ), 69 grams of saturated fat (3.5 days' worth ), and 6,280 milligrams of sodium (about four days' worth). And it contains 38 teaspoons of sugar.

I read the center's report, and Justin Moyer's eye-0pening post on it, a day after returning home from two weeks in Japan, where, you're probably aware, life expectancy is greater than in every nation except tiny Monaco and the Chinese territory of Macau, according to the CIA's World Factbook, which lists the United States 42nd. And where the obesity rate runs at a little over 3 percent, compared with about 35 percent in the United States.

I understand that life expectancy is a complex mix of genetics, lifestyle and other factors, but the contrast in eating habits in the two nations is jolting (as is the knowledge that today's U.S. children may be the first generation in 200 years to live shorter life spans than their parents). I traveled most of Japan without seeing anything remotely like the Red Robin burger or the Cheesecake Factory's slab of "Peanut Butter Chocolate Cake Cheesecake” (1,500 calories, 43 grams of saturated fat, 21 teaspoons of sugar), another Xtreme Eating award winner. The Japanese diet, as many know, is based heavily on rice and noodles, with plenty of vegetables and small bits of fish, chicken, pork or beef. Desserts are small by our standards and often consist of fruit. All of it is served in what Americans would consider tiny portions, on small plates or in small bowls, instead of heaped on one large plate. On the Japanese island of Okinawa, home to a greater proportion of centenarians than anywhere in the world, many follow the practice of pushing away from a meal when they are 80 percent full.


A woman passes an advertisement outside a fast food outlet. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

According to this 2006 study from the University of Minnesota, Americans consume an average of 230 more calories each day than the Japanese (2,168 vs. 1,930), and exercise much less -- mainly because Japanese adults walk so much more as part of everyday life.

All of which raises the question: Why do so many of us still eat so poorly?

David Kessler, the former administrator of the Food and Drug Administration who wrote the influential book "The End of Overeating," said the problem is a combination of the addictive salt, fat and sugar added to most foods and social mores that allow the consumption of vast quantities. (Full disclosure: Kessler is on the board of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, though he had nothing to do with the recent report.)

Kessler's research showed the addictive quality of salt, fat and sugar, and a food industry that pushes it to keep us buying. "I’m tired, I'm restless. It’s a long day. I want to basically calm down. In order to calm down, I need to, in essence, zone out. My circuits are all firing, and I want to be in a different place," he said.

"If I give you fat, sugar and salt, and I can attract your attention and I can stimulate your affective circuitry, and I can do that for the next 25 minutes while you’re eating this stuff, you’re not thinking about anything else."

Jayne Hurley, a senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public interest who conducted the most recent study, said that nearly half our food dollars are now spent eating outside the home, where, in most places, we find menus that still don't tell us how many calories we're consuming.

"The bottom line is people just have no idea how many calories they’re eating," and portions just keep getting bigger, she said. "I don’t think people know what a normal portion of food is. We’ve taught people that a drink is 32 ounces." Muffins used to be about two ounces, she said. Today, they are five ounces. The older size "looks teeny tiny. A ... normal portion is now called 'petite' or 'bite-size,'" she said.

When the organization started its food survey in 2007, Hurley said, it was shocked to discover a 1,500-calorie entree. Now most on the list are in the 2,000 calorie range, and some reach 3,000.

Kessler and Hurley both said that they have begun to see some restaurants offer smaller portions and give some emphasis to healthful meals. Change is coming, Kessler said, but it's happening too slowly.

He said society must begin to tackle huge, unhealthful food portions the way he and others went after the tobacco industry: By stripping away its cool and fun image and revealing it for the health hazard it is.

"I’d try to change the social norms,” he said. "I’d go after big food. And I would go after things that are sold as food when there’s no real food in it. It’s just highly processed fat, salt and sugar."

Lenny Bernstein writes the To Your Health blog. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports.
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Lenny Bernstein · August 1