Having a little less to chew on

The county's public service ads offer good advice, but trying to get people to eat smarter on a grand scale is a tough task.

I've got two reasons to watch my weight over the next several weeks. First, it's the holiday season, when the national sport is overeating. Second, I've got another knee replacement coming up soon, and the lighter I am going in, the easier the recovery will be.

Maybe that's why I've been noticing the county's public service ad campaign around town. The ads are on billboards and transit shelters, among other places, and each one examines two different meal options.

The double cheeseburger, large fries and large cola depicted on one ad, for example, add up to 1,250 calories. But scale back to a cheeseburger, small fries and small cola, and the damage is a mere 680 calories.

This theme is repeated with sandwiches, pizza and breakfast. You can stuff yourself with four pancakes, two fried eggs and four strips of bacon, then waddle away under the weight of 1,050 calories. Or, if you think you can survive with two fewer pancakes and two fewer pieces of bacon, you're down to 650 calories.

"Choose Less. Weigh Less," says the text on the ads, which also say: "2,000 calories a day is all most adults need."

Says who?

Says the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, which got $1 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to fund the ad campaign.

This kind of government preaching has been lambasted as nanny state nonsense in some parts of the country, most notably in New York, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has banned the sale of sugary soft drinks larger than 16 ounces in restaurants and movie theaters.

But Jonathan Fielding, L.A. County's public health director, counters that in a county that's had a 74% increase in adult obesity between 1997 and 2011, something has to be done. "Our obesity epidemic," said Fielding, is responsible for "a huge portion" of disabling and potentially fatal conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

Those diseases cost all of us through higher insurance rates and a bigger tax burden. So I don't have a problem with trying to counteract the billions spent to promote fast food and junk food. And as Fielding noted, this campaign (which you can learn more about at http://www.choosehealthla.com) is part of a broader effort to promote more healthful lifestyles.

Some of the advice from the county is a little simplistic, to be honest. We're advised to replace the candy dish with a fruit bowl, save half for later and "avoid mindless munching in front of the TV."

Then again, we're a bunch of hopeless dummies when it comes to diet, paying small fortunes for personal instructors and kooky weight-loss plans when there's a sure-fire program that costs nothing at all:

Eat a little less, exercise a little more.

There's an element of that simplicity in the portion-control campaign. We're not told to kick the pancake habit and switch to dried kelp with toasted flax seed, but to eat fewer pancakes.

"That's smart," said Nicky De Marinis, who said he's lost 15 pounds in four months by eating a little less of everything rather than eliminating anything.

I bumped into De Marinis, who owns Nicky D's Pizza in Silver Lake, near one of the pancake ads in Los Feliz. If his pizza wasn't so good, I told him, it'd be easier for me to lose weight.

"Don't eat the whole pizza," said De Marinis. He was with his wife, Bunny, who said she remembered when a soft drink was served in a sensible cup and a cookie wasn't the size of a Frisbee.

"I hate to say it," said Nicky, "but maybe we need to stop putting so much pasta on the plate at the restaurant."

Cornell University professor Brian Wansink, author of "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think," says L.A. County is using a smart approach in a society programmed to overindulge.

"You're going in the right direction to say, 'Eat what you want, but eat a little less,' " said Wansink.