Nightly News   |  June 21, 2010

Overeating aided by dinner plate inflation

Be Well, Be Healthy: As food has grown cheaper and portion sizes have exploded, the size of our dinner plates have grown to accommodate our ever-expanding appetites. NBC's Tom Costello reports.

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BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: to your health and a look at one reason that 70 percent of Americans -- 70 percent -- are over weight . Cheap food, lots of it, and it's everywhere. In our BE WELL BE HEALTHY report tonight, NBC 's Tom Costello asks, `When was the last time you took a good hard look at your dinner plate ?'

TOM COSTELLO reporting: America 's love affair with its palate and all that pleases it has grown and grown over the past 50 years, and with it our tummies, backsides and, it turns out, our dinner plates. Alex Bogusky 's eureka moment for his book "The 9-inch Diet" came when he bought a 1940s house and couldn't get his new plates into the old kitchen cabinets.

Mr. ALEX BOGUSKY: And I just thought, you know, who -- what kind of idiot makes cabinets that don't fit a normal-sized plate. And then that stuck in my head for a second and I thought, `No idiot does that. The size of our plates must have changed.'

COSTELLO: In fact, they're grown a full three inches, from nine inches in the 1960s to 12 inches today, making room for 33 percent more food.

Professor BRIAN WANSINK (Cornell University): Eating 100 extra calories a day ends up resulting in a mathematical weight gain of 10 pounds by the end of the year.

COSTELLO: Cornell Professor Brian Wansink calls it mindless eating, eating with our eyes, not our appetites.

Unidentified Man: Great.

COSTELLO: Two eggs and two pieces of bacon on a small plate look like a lot of food, but on a bigger plate there's room for more, so... Three eggs, three pieces of bacon, 50 percent more.

Prof. WANSINK: Exactly. But in your mind it's a full plate of food just as that's a full plate of food.

COSTELLO: Fifty-year-old Melanie May admits she didn't know when to stop.

Ms. MELANIE MAY: In my adult lifetime, restaurant portions have gotten huge.

COSTELLO: Her weight surged to 180. She's now at 165, hoping to get to 130. And she's not alone. In 1960 the average American male had a 35-inch waist. Women averaged 30 inches. Fifty years later, men have added nearly five inches, now 39.7. Women have added seven inches. And with the inches come the pounds. Since 1960 , men have gone from 166 to 195 pounds on average. Women have gone from 140 to 165.

Ms. MAY: Well, I don't remember my parents eating this way when I was a kid . You know, I just remember much more sensible portions. And now it's just much harder to eat a smaller quantity of food.

COSTELLO: A generation all taught to clean our plates, but portion sizes are 20, 30, even 40 percent larger than 30 years ago. Dietitians call it portion distortion.

Ms. ELISABETH MOORE (Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center): We're thinking that maybe we're just getting one or two servings, where we're getting maybe four or five servings.

COSTELLO: As a nation we consume 500 more calories each day than 40 years ago, just about the amount of extra food we can now fit on our 12-inch plates. Tom Costello, NBC News, New York.