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Weekend House Call: Why Are So Many Americans Overweight

Aired March 1, 2003 - 08:29   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Today on "Weekend House Call," the supersizing of America. Why are so many of us so overweight? And we live in a society of blame, so this morning we ask who or what is to blame for the super sizing of America?
Our medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen joins us -- good morning.

Thanks for being with us.


Anderson, by now it is no secret, you should not be surprised, we have an obesity epidemic on our hands. A whopping 64 percent of U.S. adults are either overweight or obese. This morning we'll take a look, as Anderson said, at who is to blame for this. How did this happen? How did Americans become super sized?


COHEN (voice-over): Would you like super sized fries with that, sir? Maybe what they ought to ask is would you like huge amounts of calories with that, sir? Exactly how many extra calories you get when you super size is dramatic. Here are a few examples. The smallest Frosty at Wendy's, 113 calories. The largest, 298 calories. A serving of small fries from McDonald's is 210 calories. Super size it, 610 calories.

And Burger King's hamburger, 310 calories. Make that a double Whopper, 1,060 calories. With that in mind, I went to McDonald's to see how large portions add up.

(on camera): Now we have here a Quarter Pounder with cheese, large fries, a large Coca-Cola and an ice cream for dessert. And this food that you're looking at right here, that's as many calories as I'm supposed to have in an entire day and I'm having it in one meal.

(voice-over): So whose fault is it that super sizing has become all the rage? Food companies for pushing it or us for buying it?


COHEN: Now, what exactly does it mean when we say that someone is obese? Well, we have two examples for you. If you're 5'2" and you weigh more than 170 pounds, you are considered obese. If you're 6' tall and weigh more than 230 pounds, then you're considered obese. Now, for any of your questions or comments, please give us a call at 1-800-807-2620 or send us an e-mail as

We have two guests with us this morning to help us answer your questions.

From L.A., we have Greg Critser. Greg is the author of a book, a new book called "Fat Land" and he says that much of the blame is really due to the restaurant industry. He says that they've been super sizing these portions and they're part of the reason why we're overweight.

We also have, from Washington, D.C., Steven Anderson. He is president of the National Restaurant Association and he says that restaurants shouldn't take the blame, it's what people eat at home and our lack of exercise.

Let's start right in, gentlemen, with an e-mail from Egon in San Diego. Egon asks us, "As a recent immigrant from Holland, I am amazed by the American breakfast. The consumption of eggs, meat and carbohydrates. When I occasionally have such a breakfast, I notice I also tend to eat a bigger lunch. Could this be one of the reasons why the obesity rate in America is so much higher than in most European countries?"

Greg, you have studied this. Is it true that portions in the U.S. are bigger than portions in Europe?

GREG CRITSER, AUTHOR, "FAT LAND": Yes, there's no doubt about that. And what the caller was asking about in terms of increased appetite is very interesting and something that science is just showing us now. And that is that appetite is not necessarily tied to how hungry you are. It's tied to a whole bunch of other things, one of them being visual cues. And clearly what the phenomenon that he was referring to, eating a larger than usual portion, was acting that way on him. It was showing him and cuing him that, indeed, he wanted more food.

COHEN: And, Steven, what do you think? Are portions bigger in American restaurants than they are in European restaurants?

STEVEN ANDERSON, NATIONAL RESTAURANT ASSOCIATION: Well, there was a study that came out that was published in the journal of the American Medical Association on portion sizes and some subsequent information came out. And even though portions may be increasing in some places where people eat, mostly at home -- 76 percent of all meals are eaten at home and not at restaurants -- the amount of calories consumed by Americans really haven't changed. And if C. Everett Koop is right, saying this is about calories and energy in and calories and energy out, it really says more about our sedentary lifestyle than it does about the amount of food that people are eating.

We're not eating like we did back in the 1950s. We're on the go. We're an activity rich, time poor society and that means people eat when they can and when they have an opportunity to do it. So they're not eating three meals a day. I thought it was interesting, you must get quite an appetite when you went through that quick service restaurant. I mean just because we have electricity in this country doesn't mean you have to electrocute yourself. You don't have to eat everything on the restaurant menus.

COHEN: Well, you don't have to eat everything, but I have to say that was just a meal. It was a main dish. It was French fries and a drink and dessert. I mean I wasn't eating everything on the menu. That was just a meal.

But speaking of McDonald's, which is where I was at, of course we've spent a lot of time talking in the news about the lawsuit against McDonald's. It accuses McDonald's of making, someone has accused McDonald's of making them obese. They say McDonald's is to blame for making, they say, misleading nutritional claims.

And, Anderson, I believe we have a phone call about that.

COOPER: Yes, we have a caller from, Chris in Honolulu.

Chris, what's your question?

CHRIS: Yes, I'm just wondering, you know, it's real silly that it's still going on, this corporate lawsuit for an individual's obesity. I think moderation of calories and cholesterol intake is one's own responsibility and a lawsuit on a fast food chain won't change one's health issues nor America's health problem.

ANDERSON: Well, as I pointed out earlier, you know, most meals are eaten at home and these lawsuits really do give the term frivolous a bad name. I guess what happens next is that kids can sue their parents for serving them macaroni and cheese.

I mean this is about personal responsibility. When you go into one of the 870,000 restaurants and food service outlets in the country, that means there are numerous venues where you could go and eat, both at home and in a restaurant. And then once you go into a restaurant, there are numerous options on the menu that would meet the dietary need of every American.

COOPER: Well, we're going to talk about personal responsibility when we come back.

COHEN: Right.

COOPER: We're going to talk about gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins. Do we need to learn how to just say no? Call us with your comments and questions. We are at 1-800-807-2620 or you can e- mail us at

We'll be right back.


COHEN (voice-over): No pain no gain, right? Well, not so fast. Walking is apparently just as good for your heart as vigorous exercise like jogging or doing aerobics. The Harvard study on post-menopausal women found that brisk walking led to a 30 percent lower risk of having a heart attack or stroke and that more vigorous exercise wasn't any better.

Experts say the findings should apply to all men and women. So, how much do you have to walk? Thirty minutes, five days a week. But you can split those 30 minutes into 10 minute increments.

For Feeling Fit, I'm Elizabeth Cohen.



COOPER: We are taking your calls and e-mails here on "Weekend House Call." Why is America so fat and who or what's to blame?

You can call us, 1-800-807-2620, with your question or comment. E-mail us at

We're back in 60 seconds.


COOPER: Ah, gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins. We're talking about obesity in America, who or what's to blame and what you can start doing about it. And as we mentioned, gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins.

COHEN: That's right. And I know the other six. They are pride, envy, lust, anger, greed and sloth. So, wow.


COHEN: Those are all pretty bad.

COOPER: You get them all in the news business.

COHEN: That's right. I've seen all seven of them just in one, just this morning.

We have a, speaking of gluttony, let's talk about large portions.

Sharon from Morgantown, West Virginia asks, "If obesity contributes greatly to the decline in the health of Americans, why can't you get healthier food and smaller portions in most restaurants?

Greg Critser, that's a good question for you. You talk a lot about in your book about why and how the restaurant industry decided to start super sizing their portions.

CRITSER: Sure. Well, that's a great question and I think it goes to this, also it goes to this issue of personal responsibility because, you know, we know that if you go, for example, to a McDonald's now, you cannot buy a single serving of Coca-Cola. You buy almost two servings of Coca-Cola at, for the small. So what used to be small would have been yesteryear's extra large. And you don't have a choice. And I think that goes to a point that the restaurant industry is constantly making, that if it is, indeed, about personal choice, why can't you buy a small size, OK?

So that and one thing that I would like to bring up also is that, you know, it's not necessarily the restaurant industry's fault per se. Restaurants cater to a profound change in American society in the 1970s and '80s, and that is that both parents began working and that there needed a prag -- there was a pragmatic need to find another way to feed the family.

So I think that, you know, each party kind of fed the other. I think the missing part here is, indeed, portion control, both in terms of the parents teaching the child portion control, but also the fast food industry providing those options. And we're starting to see that happen. You know, I did some traveling around the country. One of the troubling things for the fast food industry is that some kids, particularly college kids, see super sizing as uncool or gross. And as we know, that's kind of death for a product. So I think that's something that the industry is going to take seriously.

COHEN: Steve Anderson, you want to talk about this portion issue?

ANDERSON: Oh, yes, absolutely. I think to your viewer's question, you can get smaller portions in restaurants. They're on the menu every day and I appreciate Greg's comments saying that restaurants are not to blame for this issue that, you know, you're not required to get a regular cola when you go into a restaurant. You can get a small cola. You can get a diet cola. You can get water. You can get a glass of orange juice which, I might add, I've been on the board of the Five A Day For Better Health Foundation that encourages people eat five servings a day of fruits and vegetables to guard against cancer and other chronic diseases, and having a glass of orange juice counts as one serving towards that goal.

So you can get these things. You don't have to super size when you go into a restaurant.

COOPER: Although, I must say it's made incredibly easy to super size when the person at the counter the first, you know, they automatically say I assume that, you know, they'll say that's a regular cola. You have to sort of make it a special effort to say a small or they'll even say you want to super size that? It's as easy as saying yes.

We actually have another caller on the phone. We want to bring her in. Emma in Colorado.

Emma, what's your question?

EMMA: Good morning. I'm Emma. I have a full time vocation as a caregiver for three disabled adults. I wanted to say first of all I'm very upset when I hear the word sin for food together. Food is a joy. That was my first cookbook. What I'd like to ask you is I've noticed all around me how does anyone in our society find the joy in the kitchen and the home? Is there any way we can find some of that and spend some time and energy in our families, throwing up grandma's recipes, doing some great leftovers in the microwave again?

Thank you.

COOPER: All right.

COHEN: Greg Critser, you talk about that in your book and you just mentioned it, about families having such a hard time finding the time to cook.

CRITSER: Yes, I think one of the things that people are realizing as they see obesity as a medical issue, particularly for children, is that there is, that you have to make this kind of cognitive daily effort to balance caloric intake with caloric outtake. And the table, you know, which is this very primal social institution, is something that we've given up, for a variety of different reasons, both pragmatic and social. And I think that you're seeing now some parents starting to reorder their priorities and saying well, maybe it's not important that I take Johnny to soccer practice or piano practice every other night. We're going to have to make some sacrifices. I'm not going to be able to go to my networking meeting whatever you want to, however you want to call it, in terms of professional advancement.

I think that all of those things are converging now and you're starting to see parents taking control of the table again.

COHEN: Greg, speaking of eating at home, we have here some interesting plates. These were brought in by one of our producers. This was her grandmother's dinner plate in the 1940s. Look at how much smaller it is than her own dinner plate that she uses today. I mean we just have so much bigger portions now. We expect to be able to fit more food on the planet now than we did years ago.

CRITSER: That's right.

COOPER: That's really interesting. I hadn't even considered that. I actually have a plate at home which is like even...

COHEN: Even bigger than that.

COOPER: Even bigger than that. It's like a Pottery Barn plate.

We've got another call from Nancy in Florida.

Let's find out her question. Nancy?

NANCY: Yes, good morning.

Why are our industries allowed to produce hydrogenised oils and sell them to our restaurants when their chemists know what the oils do to our arteries? I don't understand that. You can't go to the supermarket right now, it's just countless in a market, the homemaker has to spend an hour just looking and reading because of hydrogenised oils.

COHEN: Steve, why don't you tackle that one. I know McDonald's recently changed its oil, but not everybody has.

ANDERSON: Yes, you know, it's really, I think, very interesting. You know, food is a much more complicated issue than a lot of people think. And, you know, when you look at those food labels, a lot of people will look at fat and they'll look at sodium but, you know, they'll assume that a product is low in fat, you know, might not, you know, it might be even higher in calories.

And I think the important thing for the American people to realize, you don't have to be a dietitian to eat in this country, but it does help to draw on the advice of dietitians, is that there really are no good food or bad foods. There may be good or bad diets but, you know, the focus of moderation and balance in diet which, you know, you don't have to be an expert on trans fats and, you know, all the other, riboflavin and other things that you'll find on a nutrition label. But if you do have moderation and balance in diet and get physical activity, you know, go out and walk, get to the gym, you know, go out and exercise with your kids, you know, it's a wonderful thing to do.

COOPER: We only have about 10 minutes left for this "House Call." We're going to go to a break.

But when we come back, it is not just adults, of course. America's kids are getting heavier and heavier and there are serious medical consequences. How can you help your kids lose weight and make different choices? We're going to tackle that ahead when "Weekend House Call" continues.


COOPER: Hope you were able to read that statistic because it is pretty frightening. We are, you're joining us here on "Weekend House Call" and we are talking about obesity in America. And the statistic basically said that kids between the ages of six and 11, that the percentage of overweight kids in that age range has doubled in the last 20 years. It is just amazing.

COHEN: It is amazing.

COOPER: And, Elizabeth, you've been getting a lot of e-mails about what we can do to stop kids from being, getting so overweight.

COHEN: Absolutely. I know parents are so frustrated with this. If they have a child who's overweight, it's such a difficult issue to deal with. We have an e-mail from Kevin from Melville, New York, and he writes, "You really don't have to go far to see what's making children fat. It's the parents who spoil their children because they're too busy to worry about nutrition. They care about the quickest meal available, usually fast food." Steve Anderson, let's talk about that. I have kids and I'm sure that there are restaurants that offer low calorie or lower fat or healthier meals for kids, but most of the ones that you end up going to, the meals, the kids meals are pretty fatty and pretty high in calories.

ANDERSON: Well, I have two kids, eight and seven, and I think this is a really part of this, a major part of this problem that I talked about earlier about our much more sedentary society. We have way too many kids sitting in front of screens, whether they're television, video or computer screens. The average 17-year-old will have watched somewhere between 15,000 and 17,000 hours of television before they become 17 years old.

We don't get kids out and have exercise. And there's only one school system in the entire country that requires a daily physical education program, and that's Illinois. In 1969, 80 percent of the school districts required physical education. Now, we're down to about 20 percent. Look at our neighborhoods. We have these suburban neighborhoods where we don't have sidewalks. Kids can't go out and play like they once did because the parents are concerned, obviously, for their safety.

So it's really a function if we're not consuming any more calories, you know, it's more a function of exercise. And what we really need to do is give these kids the tools to become not only kids, but adults later in life and to focus on moderation and balance in diet and teach them the skills of physical activity and exercise.

COOPER: Steve, we've actually got a caller who wants to talk about the schools and, Greg, we'll let you respond.

Joann in Maryland, what's your comment?

JOANN: Yes, I'd like to see the kids who are close to the school be able to walk home for lunch, if possible. Also, open the gym at lunch period for the kids to even walk around. I know my granddaughter says she has to just sit there at lunch. Let's get 'em outside walking around the school.

Also, let's bring back King Club on Friday night, three hours of dancing. I remember when I came home from school and watched "American Bandstand" and was revved up for Friday night to do my dancing for three hours. Let's bring that back. Some kids are not into sports...

COHEN: Thank you for your comment.

We actually don't have time to answer that right now. We'll get to that when we get back.

And when we come back, some final thoughts on this national problem.


COHEN: Welcome back to "Weekend House Call" where we've been talking about the national epidemic of obesity.

Steven Anderson from the National Restaurant Association, thank you for joining us.

And we're going to have final thoughts from Greg Critser, the author of the book "Fat Land."


CRITSER: Oh, thank you.

You know, I think listening to this show, any average listener would wonder about where Steve is eating his food and where the average American is eating their food. And, you know, there's very little diversity in the diet provided by most restaurants today. It's impossible to get a small drink at most restaurants. I think also if you look at the issue of sedentary behaviors, yes, of course, physical activity is important and it's nice to hear the restaurateurs talking about it. But, you know, if you think about it, that's not really their charge, is it? I mean their charge is food and providing us with a decent, a number of decent dietary alternatives, which, you know, we know they have it.

Even in the public school system, for example, Pizza Hut is a good example. The L.A. public school system tried to get them to provide smaller portion sizes on campus...

COHEN: Greg Critser, thanks for joining us.

CRITSER: ... and they refused to do so.

COHEN: Thanks for joining us.

I'm sorry, we have to cut you off.

CRITSER: Sure. I understand.

COHEN: But we are at the end of our show. We could talk forever on this topic.

Be sure to catch "Weekend House Call" tomorrow, when we talk about another national problem, sleeplessness. If you're having trouble sleeping, you want to make sure that you're awake for this program.

Please e-mail your questions now to This is the place for the answers to your medical questions.

I'm Elizabeth Cohen.

Thanks for watching.



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