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Livin' Large

Why are Americans more likely to be overweight than the French, who love fatty foods? Portions are a big part of the problem. Whether eating out or cooking at home, Americans chow down, while the French eat less and seem to enjoy more.

"Heaping portions," "hefty portions," "hungry man's portions," "massive portions," "obscenely gigantic portions."

There are 75 -- count 'em -- 75 references to large servings in Zagat's 2003/04 guide to Boston restaurants.

That's right. Boston, land of Yankee restraint, leaves its Puritan inhibitions somewhere between "I'll have" and "Check, please."

The Zagat guide to Paris restaurants, on the other hand, contains 23 references to small servings -- "skimpy portions," "miniscule portions," "shrunken portions," "microscopic portions," portions deemed "frugal," portions for "anorexics," portions considered "disappointing by those not slated to appear on the cover of Vogue."

Should it come as any surprise that 22 percent of Americans qualify as obese, compared to only 7 percent of the French?

Sure, the restaurant guide for Paris lists its fair share of establishments serving large portions. But there are 30 percent fewer of them than in the Boston Zagat book. And the Paris guide tends toward daintier depictions, as in "generous seafood-oriented cuisine" and "large crepe." No "hefty red-sauce eats" there. No "behemoth breakfast," "stomach-stuffing meals," or portions "large enough to feed a family." No observation that the waitstaff "might as well serve the food in a trough."

Perhaps the difference goes back to the fact that what the French consider a large portion doesn't compare with the American definition of large. University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin made the point when he weighed Parisian restaurant servings and sized them up against similar dishes at restaurants in Philadelphia, where he's based. (He also looked at Zagat listings for restaurants in Philadelphia, home of the baseball-bat-size cheesesteak hoagie, which is what sparked the idea for this look at Zagat's Beantown guide.)

Rozin, who published his results in the September issue of the journal, Psychological Science, found that a typical entree in a Chinese restaurant in Philadelphia weighed 72 percent more, on average, than a similar meal in Paris; a treat from a Philadelphia ice cream shop, 24 percent more.

The disconnect in portion sizes extends beyond restaurants. Rozin also found portions bigger in American supermarkets, which he reported in his study titled, "The Ecology of Eating: Smaller Portion Sizes in France Than in the United States Help Explain the French Paradox." (That's the paradox whereby the French are less likely to die of heart disease despite their penchant for fatty foods.)

Rozin said he isn't sure whether the French and the Americans were always so far apart on portion sizes, but he does note "an American principle of abundance."

We're a "big country," he noted, and "big" has a lot of meaning to us, even emotionally. "Serving a lot of food is a way of saying `I love you,' " here, he said. "We have tied affection and caring with eating copiously." The French, by contrast, have not done that, he said.

At the same time, the Protestant Ethic in the United States "says you should be able to control yourself in the face of food," that you are "personally responsible for your health, your body," Rozin said. Stewardship of one's own body "is very much a part of the Protestant concern."

In other words, there's a Catch-22. You're loved if you're served a lot, but you're a morally deficient slob if you eat it.

It's an impossible situation, Rozin maintained, because it's so hard not to overeat when an abundance of food is put in front of you. That's not just a hunch on his part. Study after carefully controlled study has shown that the more people are served, the more they will eat. It's simply human nature.

Therefore, to stay thinner, Rozin said, the onus should be not on the individual but on larger societal norms. "It's much easier to arrange your environment" by making smaller portions the custom, he said.

That, of course, is what the French do. Also, he observed, they don't feel guilty over their pleasures and therefore enjoy their mealtimes in a way that we don't, getting what he calls "more food experience" out of less food. Indeed, as part of his research, Rozin measured the amount of time spent eating in Paris compared to that in the United States and found that people took 50 percent longer to get through a simple lunch in France.

Fay Reiter, a certified social worker in Hopewell, N.J., who has counseled overweight people seeking to slim down, isn't surprised. While the French eat less, she said, they're satisfied with less, because eating over there is "an occasion to enjoy, to slow down and relax." Here, she said, people drive up to a fast-food window and then "ride around in isolation while they eat a lot of calories that they barely taste as they rush to finish. People try to replace mealtime satisfaction with more food. It doesn't work."

Such cultural differences in attitude toward food and eating are not easy to overcome. But even so, Rozin said, "at least it's nice to know there's a potential solution" to America's overeating problem.

"Probably the single most important determinant of meal intake is how much is served," he stated in his study. At the same time, he noted in an interview, only about "10 percent of American income is spent on food." Thus, if restaurants and food-manufacturing companies that supply products to supermarkets made portions smaller, Americans "wouldn't suffer economically," because it's not like a lot of our money is going toward procuring calories in the first place.

People wouldn't even notice a 5 to 10 percent reduction in serving sizes, he said, yet the reduction in calories could have a big impact on stemming the obesity epidemic.

Roger Berkowitz, president of Legal Seafoods -- "the most popular restaurant in Boston," according to Zagat's -- begs to differ. "I think that people would notice" even a slight shaving in portions, he said. To the "American psyche, bigger is better. The notion of small portions at times offends people. They eat with their eyes. That's the conundrum restaurants face," even when they want to feed people more healthfully portioned meals, he said.

Of course, Berkowitz said, there's always "smart eating," that is, the doggie bag. Marshaling the restraint to push aside even just 5 percent of your usual calories throughout the day will result in a 10-pound weight loss over a year's time for someone currently consuming 2,000 calories daily. As Rozin noted, "very small daily differences, compounded over the years, can amount to substantial differences in weight."

It's a point worth remembering the next time you visit, say, the Cheesecake Factory, where the Zagat guide cautions that you'd "better wear loose pants."

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