Teens gorge on fast food even when not super-sized

NEW YORK Tue May 8, 2007 1:20pm EDT

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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A new study suggests that there's something about fast-food burgers and fries, other than the often giant portion sizes, that encourages teens to gorge.

In a study of 18 teenagers, researchers at Children's Hospital Boston found that no matter how they served an extra-large fast-food meal -- all at once, or in smaller portions spaced out over one hour -- the teens devoured a similar number of calories.

In general, they downed half of their calorie needs for the day from that one fast-food meal, regardless of how it was served, according to findings published in the journal Pediatrics.

"Super-sized" fast-food meals have been blamed for the super-sizing of America's collective waistline, and there's evidence that giant portion sizes do encourage people to eat more than they otherwise would.

However, the new findings suggest that the tendency to gorge on chicken nuggets and fries is more than a matter of portioning. The nutritional content of those foods -- high in fat and sugar, low in fiber -- may also promote overeating, said lead study author Dr. Cara B. Ebbeling.

If that's the case, then "fundamental improvements in the nutritional quality of fast food" may be needed, she and her colleagues conclude in their report.

The study included teens who were overweight or at risk of becoming overweight. The researchers split the subjects into small groups and asked them to eat an extra-large meal of chicken nuggets, fries and a soda in each of three ways.

On one day, they ate the meal in the standard fashion - all at once. On another day, all of the food was served together, but in four smaller packages; the point was to see if a different "visual cue" would change the teens' food consumption.

Under the third condition, the meal was served in four smaller portions, offered in 15-minute intervals. This change was designed to slow the rate of eating, which in theory could prevent gorging.

But in the end, Ebbeling's team found, the teens ate a similar number of calories no matter how the food was presented -- around 1,300 calories, on average, with each meal.

Ebbeling stressed that the way the meals were served was fundamentally different from portion control; each meal offered the same amount of food, just presented in different ways. So eliminating giant portion sizes remains a worthy goal.

"Portion control is really important," she told Reuters Health. "We know that people eat less when they're given a smaller portion."

But the study does suggest that changes in the nutritional quality of these foods, and not just their portion sizes, may be needed.

That, of course, is easier said than done. For now, teens (and adults) who eat at fast-food restaurants can at least order more-healthful options like salads, Ebbeling said.

Teenagers, particularly overweight teens, do tend to overeat in general, but gorging on salad, without a lot of high-calorie dressing, won't make the calories add up as fast.

"It's much harder to get a large amount of calories if you're eating vegetables," Ebbeling said.

SOURCE: Pediatrics, May 2007.

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