The human body was never meant to face a Super Bowl lineup. Not the massive players, but the massive menus. If you were a corporate VIP at Sunday's game in San Diego, you could have feasted on kielbasa and Italian sausage, savory pesto cheese torte and chocolate walnut squares from the pre- and postgame menus. If you were like most everyone else, watching the game at home or at a friend's party, you probably grazed upon a giant spread of high-fat, high-calorie food such as Buffalo wings, chili, nachos and beer.
If our binges were limited to Super Bowl Sunday and Thanksgiving, the two biggest days for gastronomical excess, they wouldn't be a big concern, say nutritionists and dietitians. For many of us, however, these feast fests -- in which more calories often are ingested in one sitting than is recommended for an entire day -- extend throughout the year in subtler forms. Holidays, birthdays, graduations, office gatherings and backyard barbecues now are occasions for overeating.
And a new study released last week helps demonstrate that the problem extends beyond special occasions to our everyday habits. Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that portion sizes, whether at fast-food outlets, pricey restaurants or at home, have grown dramatically during the last 20 years. The average hamburger, for example, is 23% bigger, an order of fries is 16% larger and the size of soft drinks is 50% greater today compared with sizes 20 years ago, the researchers reported.
Needless to say, America as a whole has not embarked on a commensurate program of exercise to keep pace with its climbing caloric intake. Less than one-third of Americans engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity at least five days a week, while 40% of adults do no leisure-time activities at all, according to government statistics.
Sometimes, in an attempt to compensate, overeaters eat less or exercise more in the days after a binge, but these tactics are not counterbalancing the damage, say food educators. The result is that Americans are gradually losing the battle for a static waistline and good health -- one pound at a time.
People will often gain a pound or two at a Super Bowl party or similar event. The problem, though, is that "we don't lose that pound, so a decade down the road you've got those extra 10 to 12 pounds," said Chris Rosenbloom, an associate professor of nutrition at Georgia State University. "It's weight creep, and it takes constant vigilance to fight it."
A fatter America
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 61% of the country is either overweight or obese based upon a height and weight ratio called the body mass index. In 1999, about 31% of the population met the criteria for obesity. That figure was more than double what it was in 1971, when just 14.5% were considered obese. The stakes, of course, have more to do with just vanity. Being overweight or obese increases the risks for, among other things, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.
It's unclear, though, exactly how much of the national weight problem can be blamed on the one-day binge. No studies have focused on that specific issue, but food educators suspect that it's one of the main culprits for America's growing flabbiness.
Most aren't aware how easy it is to exceed their daily recommended number of calories. Depending upon age, gender and activity level, a person should eat between 1,600 and 2,800 calories -- of which, at most, 30% should be from fat.
Ignore the Super Bowl smorgasbord and think about the chips, dips and beers you may put away watching the Laker or Angel game on television. Eating just six tortilla chips (a 1-ounce serving) of certain brands can ring up 140 calories and 7 fat grams. A couple of scoops (also a 1-ounce serving) into the guacamole dip would ring up 108 calories and 12 fat grams. Finally, wash it all down with a regular 12-ounce beer and you get 150 more calories.
Another common scenario is going out for a dinner and a movie. If you go Chinese, maybe you've heard about the evils of kung pao chicken, a serving of which can have as many as 1,500 calories and a whopping 76 fat grams, according to a study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based health advocacy group. Greek food can be just as treacherous. A serving of moussaka, Greek rice and baklava for dessert would cost you 1,620 calories and 76 fat grams, the center found.
You can easily run into as much trouble ordering Italian, Mexican or American fare. Meanwhile, at the movies, a large bag of buttered popcorn can have enough calories to match the meal you have just eaten. A typical bag can have 1,760 calories and 130 fat grams -- equivalent to the fats you'd get from eight Big Macs. Not that it would matter at this point, but a large non-diet soda would add 310 calories.
Whether you keep track of fat and calories you consume or not, by the next morning you probably know you overdid it. Maybe you schedule an extra treadmill workout or take the dog for an extra long walk, but that's unlikely to burn off all those calories. "You basically need to run a marathon to work off those kind of snacks and meals," said Rosenbloom.
Exercising isn't enough
Nutritionists say exercise definitely helps, but it's not enough to balance the scales, especially given increasing number of high-caloric assaults on the body. Once the weight is on, it's hard to take off, especially as the body ages and the metabolism slows.
"We all still think we're living in a 20-year-old body," said Roxanne Moore, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Assn.
The body is always struggling to maintain its set point, or the weight toward which it naturally gravitates, research shows. In most cases, when someone overeats, the body tends to eat less. But if this point is overrun by excessive food, the set point rises and the greater weight becomes the new norm, research shows.
Once a new point is established, it's difficult to return to a previous, healthier one. Studies have shown that a person whose set point has always been 150 pounds, for example, has an advantage in maintaining that weight over a person who has dieted and exercised the set point down to 150. Studies show that the person who has been steady at 150 pounds can eat several hundred calories more per day than the newly leaner person.
To combat one-meal binging, nutritionists urge consumers to double-check the calorie content of their food. Also, they recommend that people slow down when they eat and try to listen anew to their bodies' signals. Apparently, when it comes to the stomach, Americans aren't getting the message.
"We have lost our ability to recognize true hunger," added Moore. "We just aren't giving the brain the time to say 'Hey, I'm full.' "
Nutritionists offer these other tips to avoid overeating in Super Bowl party-like settings:
Don't skip a meal, so you can eat more later. The deprivation almost always leads to overeating.
Don't deprive yourself of something you want. Instead, have a small portion.
Avoid hanging out near the snack table or kitchen at a party.
Try to keep a glass of water or diet beverage in your hand to avoid grazing.
When possible, bring your own dishes made with healthier or low-fat ingredients.
Avoid eating on the run. These meals, usually prepackaged or fast food, are typically high in calories and fat.
Avoid multi-tasking while eating. It can be distracting and interrupt signals of fullness and lead to overeating.
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These calorie splurges cost a lot of exercise
If you think that a simple walk around the block will burn off the extra calories you consumed during the Super Bowl, think again. Here's how much fitness activity is required (for a 180-pound man) to burn off some high-calorie foods.
Beer (12 ounces, Miller Genuine Draft), 143 calories.
Walk uphill at 3.5 mph, 17 minutes
Pizza (two slices of a large Domino's Classic Hand-Tossed Cheese, large pie), 515 calories.
Ride a bicycle at 12 to 14 mph, 47 minutes
Chicken wings (KFC Hot Wings, six pieces), 460 calories. Fast-paced soccer game, 34 minutes
Mixed nuts (3 ounces), 530 calories.
Golf (walking, no cart), 97 minutes
Nachos (Taco Bell Nachos Supreme), 450 calories. Racquetball, 47 minutes