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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 September, 2003, 08:53 GMT 09:53 UK
Six Forum: Health Warning on Big Portions

  • Transcript


    The arrival of the American trend for "super-size" portions will put the health of the British public at risk, says the World Cancer Research Fund.

    The WCRF is calling on the Government, food industry and consumers to take charge of the way people eat in a bid to tackle obesity.

    Doctors warn that obesity increases the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and breast, colon, endometrial, oesophageal and kidney cancers.

    You put your questions to Dr Jeffrey Prince of the World Cancer Research Fund.

    Are you aware of "portion distortion" when you eat or buy food? What's wrong with the "super-sizing" marketing model if it saves you money?



    Transcript

    Denise Mahoney:
    Hello and welcome to the Six Forum with me Denise Mahoney. Tonight are we eating ourselves to death? As food portions appear to be getting bigger and our appetite for them grows what are the real costs of cheap food? Well one health charity - the World Cancer Research Fund - is warning that American style meal deals, where bigger portions are on offer for just a few pence more, are encouraging us to eat more than we actually need and most of us are ignoring the serious health consequences of this high fat, high sugar diet.

    Well joining me is Dr Jeffrey Prince from the World Cancer Research Fund. Good evening Dr Prince.

    Jeffrey Prince:
    Good evening Denise.

    Denise Mahoney:
    Now can we start with an e-mail from Peter, which I think would sum up an awful lot of people's views. He says: "Don't you think that blaming the food industry for obesity is avoiding the root cause of all this? That actually every one of us has freedom of choice when it comes to what we put into our bodies and then if we're fat it's our own fault, it's not the manufacturers fault."

    Jeffrey Prince:
    There's so much to say on both sides of that question. Let me start off by talking about the food industry. The food industry in this country and in the United States gives us choice and that's very admirable but by marketing, by doing value marketing, which we'll talk about in a few minutes, they actually manage and direct our choice and they're managing and directing our choice towards larger items. We have to learn to resist that. But in the long run if a company tricks you or manipulates you into buying a bigger item and then you sit down and eat the whole thing you are certainly responsible. I think it's a case of collusion.

    Denise Mahoney:
    Collusion?

    Jeffrey Prince:
    Yet it's a case of two parties working together for a bad result and we as customers ought to back off. We ought not to corporate.

    Denise Mahoney:
    Well Gareth Dean is an interesting e-mailer who's written to us, he says: "It's funny since moving to the US five years ago I've seen some of these people but also some very fit people in America. Are Americans really being made fat by bigger portions?" He says that he's seen two extremes.

    Jeffrey Prince:
    He is seeing two extremes. There is an inordinate number of overweight and obese people in the United States. When I tell you that two thirds of our population is overweight and obese and one third is just obese - that is to say at the extreme end of overweight - we're dealing with an enormous number of people and that number has increased steadily for the last 20 years.

    Denise Mahoney:
    At the same time as you're saying the portions have got bigger.

    Jeffrey Prince:
    Absolutely, it is amazing that value marketing was introduced in the early eighties, this whole business of pressing people on larger portions began in the eighties, spread throughout the whole food system, and that's exactly when the population started to get fatter and fatter and fatter.

    Denise Mahoney:
    You've mentioned value marketing, that's something that's come out in your survey, I noticed people's e-mails are talking about the marketing that they think is directed at them and their children. What is value marketing - how are you defining it?

    Jeffrey Prince:
    Well let me tell you how it works in the United States and then we'll see if we think it's actually happening in the UK as well. Let's say I go into a fast food restaurant and I ask for a cheese burger and the server smiles at me and says - You know, just for 40 American cents more you can get a larger size. And I say - Oh that's a bargain. And then he says - And in that larger size you can get a meal deal for just 50 cents more. And I say - Hey wow. I have just spent 90 cents more than I intended to spend and I have just purchased probably 370 calories for lunch when all I really need or want is about 5 or 600 calories for lunch. The retailers very happy - got more money out of me - I'm very happy - I got all this food for such a low amount of money and everything is fine until I eat it. Then you've got a problem. That's how value marketing works - the food retailer offers you a lot more food for just a little more money and you say what a bargain and you spend more money than you intended to.

    Denise Mahoney:
    So the consumer really is exercising their choice and that brings me on to something that Richard Murray has written in to us and he says: "Don't you think you should stop trying to control people's lives with these suggestions? Isn't it cigarettes, it's vitamins, it's beer, coffee, now large portions, I mean it's a miracle someone hasn't thought of an enjoyment tax." What he's saying is, it's up to people when they walk into the fast food restaurant to decide whether to spend a little bit more for a larger portion, it's not down to you to stop them.

    Jeffrey Prince:
    That's a very, very good point and we don't want to have people policing other people's choices. Let me tell you why we raised this subject. The research in the United States which has gone into this huge phenomenon there has found out that the people who eat the larger size portions - who buy them and then eat them - are not aware any longer that these are larger size portions, they're not aware that they're eating more food. In other words there has been so much, what we call, portion distortion in the United States that people aren't aware of what a normal portion size is anymore.

    Denise Mahoney:
    Well that brings me on to something that Nigel Pond has just sent in, he says that he's a British person living in the USA and he's noticed that diners in the States feel that they've only received value for money when they've stuffed themselves and have enough leftovers to take home to eat later. Do you believe portion sizes are at least in part responsible for the level of obesity in the US and you said yes but is that true that people are eating so much that their appetites are actually growing?

    Jeffrey Prince:
    That is quite correct. That is to say if you ask an American - our restaurant meals - now restaurant meals in the United States are served on foot wide plates - they're 12 inches wide - and they're piled high. You can get a 26 ounce steak for instance, when we would recommend that you have three ounces.

    Denise Mahoney:
    That's like eating half a cow.

    Jeffrey Prince:
    And if you ask Americans if portion sizes have got larger in restaurants in the last 20 years, 30% will say that they have not.

    Denise Mahoney:
    I mean it's astonishing that people don't reach a level where they feel saturated, that doesn't seem to have happened yet in the United States.

    Jeffrey Prince:
    What your e-mail - the question your e-mail raised is they take half home, that's the answer, that what we would like them to do. If they're aware of the fact that this portion size is very large, they eat half of it and they save the other half for another meal, another day.

    Denise Mahoney:
    Well here's a text message from Mrs Boother in Cornwall who says: "A good way to curb overeating is to remind yourself that the stomach takes 20 minutes to tell the brain it's full." So what do you think that suggests to do.

    Jeffrey Prince:
    Eat slowly, don't rush to eat that whole meal, relax through your food and stop when you're full, don't eat the rest of it just because you bought it.

    Denise Mahoney:
    But doesn't that go against the grain of our modern lifestyles? I mean one of the things I noticed in your survey is the amount of fast food that is actually consumed which is astonishing but isn't that because of the way our lives are led in America, very similar here in the UK?

    Jeffrey Prince:
    I think fast food is popular in part because it is convenient, you can grab it and run and maybe we need to rethink some of this because it is costing us our health.

    Denise Mahoney:
    In terms of health costs your survey's been quite detailed on the diseases that are associated with overeating, can you tell me a bit more about those?

    Jeffrey Prince:
    Yeah we have always known that overweight and obesity put a tax on the heart and was connected with heart disease and with stroke. We now know that it's also connected with cancer. Statistically 14% of cancers in men are connected with overeating and lack of exercise and 20% of cancers in women are connected with overeating and exercise. Why is an interesting question and the scientists are working on that. One very interesting theory is that the fat cells that accumulate at the waist are not inert, they actually generate hormones, they generate oestrogen. A woman after menopause, for instance, has oestrogen, it comes from the fat cells around her waist. The fat cells also generate an insulin like substance or hormone. And what these substances do is make the cells continue to divide and when there is cell division there is risk of cancer. And so one very likely theory - it hasn't been proven yet - is that is why there is this link between obesity and cancer.

    Denise Mahoney:
    We've had another e-mail from somebody called G.L.: "Is there a correlation between poverty and obesity, because fatty unhealthy foods are becoming cheaper and more accessible to the poor and fruit and vegetables increasingly a luxury food?"

    Jeffrey Prince:
    I think that is very true and when we go back to the earlier e-mail we had and that's why you see in the United States two very different types of people. The wealthier people who are better educated are getting the message about not overeating, they're getting, what we call, the obesity message and they're thinking about - they're aware of what they're doing. Somehow we haven't reached people who have a lower income and less education and they seem to be becoming more obese, more fat.

    Denise Mahoney:
    Well it's a very pessimistic scenario, given what we've seen in the United States and given the way we think we're going here in the UK, that one text message from Kelly: "What do you think can be done to improve obesity levels?" I mean is there any optimism, is there any way we can stop - is there anything that the big manufacturers themselves can do to stop us inevitably going down that obese path?

    Jeffrey Prince:
    It is an enormous challenge to turn this around but we have to turn this around. I mean the price would be - if it keeps going this way - around 2050 everybody in the United States will be obese. So it has to be turned around and has to be stopped. And I think governments have to get involved in this, business has to get involved in this and of course the general population have to say to their governments and to industry do something about this. It has to do with changing attitudes, it has to do with changing legislation, it has to do with changing social mores - you know when your mother said to you - Darling eat more, don't you like my food? - mothers should stop saying that.

    Denise Mahoney:
    Eat less.

    Jeffrey Prince:
    Yeah she should let you eat what you want and not try to encourage you and make it a sign of affection to give you food. In the kind of affluent society we have today that doesn't work, lots of changes have to take place.

    Denise Mahoney:
    Well we think this is a story that's not going to go away and we wish you the best of luck with your campaigns. Thank you very much indeed Dr Jeffrey Prince. And that's all from us and we'll see you again next week. Goodnight.



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