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Stomachs as big as our eyes

Mega-muffins have become the norm. A pretzel from a street vendor is as much food as five slices of bread, a simple cup of coffee has turned into a pint of latte, and some beers come in 22-ounce sizes. Chocolate truffles? They can be as big as hens' eggs.

This has long been a land of size: big spaces, big cars and big buildings. Now there are signs that food is getting bigger than ever. Restaurants are heaping huge quantities on plates in an effort to attract customers who demand more for their money.

And consumers gobble rice cakes by the bag as they heed the siren call of fat-free labels while forgetting that fat-free can still be fattening.

Two trends of the '90s _ getting value for money and eating low-fat, or fat-free, foods _ have become invitations to gluttony.

And so, despite all the publicity given to the federal government's new food pyramid and all the nutrition information on labels, Americans are getting bigger. The latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta show that one-third of the population is overweight, up from a steady 25 percent from 1960 to 1980.

"We overeat because too much is served," said Sachiko St. Jeor, the director of the nutrition education and research program at the University of Nevada School of Medicine in Reno. "When it's there, we eat it. And now food tastes better than it used to, so we want to finish it."

Nutritionists are beginning to look at the amount of food people eat, not merely the amount of fat. They are dusting off the notion that calories, not just fat percentages, make a difference.

Diane Morris, the president of Mainstream Nutrition, diet counselors in Winnipeg, Manitoba, said she has had clients who have gained 10 to 15 pounds eating low-fat and fat-free foods.

Nutritionists agree that a clearer message must be communicated.

"People have the idea that if you're eating less than 30 percent fat you can eat all you want," said Eileen Kennedy, a nutrition policy coordinator for the office of food and consumer services at the Department of Agriculture. We haven't been clear enough on serving size, and that issue needs to be addressed."

Earlier this month, at the annual meeting of the American Dietetic Association in Orlando, Kennedy announced that her agency would release a Healthy Eating Index to help consumers determine if their diets follow the ground rules suggested in the pyramid. Serving size will be an important component of the index.

One source of confusion is the huge gap between the serving sizes listed on food packages and the servings people actually eat at home and in restaurants.

Labels on boxes of pasta, for instance, define a serving as two ounces uncooked. Usually, that means 200 calories. But most cookbooks recommend a four-ounce serving _ and restaurants typically boil seven or eight ounces for each portion of pasta. That's perhaps 800 calories _ without the sauce.

Do consumers bother to do that arithmetic? While foods like pasta may be perfectly healthy and even free of fat, people still gain weight if they consume them in large quantities.

Dr. F. Edward Scarbrough, the director of the Office of Food Labeling for the Food and Drug Administration, maintains that the two-ounce portion of pasta, like the other serving sizes on the new standardized labels, was derived from studies that tried to determine the amounts people customarily consume at a meal. "There is not much reliable data on the subject, especially since it's based mostly on recall," he said.

He cautioned that the serving sizes were never meant as recommendations. "Our objective was to provide a method for comparing products on store shelves," he said.

Bonnie Liebman, the director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, said: "Most people think the serving sizes on food labels are gross underestimates. People eat much, much more."

Perhaps because they are paying for it.

"Our average portion of fish is 13 ounces, and people finish it," said Alan Stillman, whose company, New York Restaurant Group, owns restaurants like Smith & Wollensky, the Manhattan Ocean Club and the Park Avenue Cafe that are known for large portions. The portions are big, he said, because customers demand them. "Restaurants serving minute portions have gone out of business," he said.

Indeed, the idea of providing lots of hearty food for the money, like the mountain of pasta, the Falstaffian lamb shank or the footlong hot dog, reflects a swing away from the artful little rosette of food in a sheer pool of sauce that typified nouvelle cuisine of the 1980s.

The only legacy of nouvelle cuisine is the oversize dinner plate. But now it comes piled to the edge with food. In some restaurants, it takes a salvage vessel to recover a fork that accidentally slips into the bowl of fish stew. There are tables set with wine glasses that are large enough to hold half a bottle.

Charles Palmer, the owner of Aureole, on East 61st Street, said he had received some complaints that his portions were too large. "But when the plates come back to the kitchen they are usually clean, and people go on to order dessert," he said. "If people come to a restaurant like Aureole they should get a substantial portion and not feel they have to go out for a slice of pizza afterwards."

Martha Rose Shulman, a cookbook author whose most recent book is Provencal Light (Bantam Books, 1994), recently returned to America after living in France for 12 years. She was appalled at the portions served in restaurants here. "If customers don't feel they're getting more than they can eat they think they're being cheated," she said. "In Europe, people have a sense of satisfaction with good food and they don't need to overeat."

Lisa Young, a nutritionist who has run weight-loss programs and is now a doctoral candidate at New York University, is writing her dissertation on portion size. Many serving sizes on the government's food pyramid are "like cocktail servings," she said, but added that in real life, everything from bagels to restaurant main dishes is getting larger. On the pyramid, a serving of meat is two or three ounces, a serving of cereal, a half-cup. "Those are airline portions," she said. "Nobody eats like that."

The baked potato really gets her going. "The consumer brochure about the food pyramid shows what looks like a normal baked potato and lists it at 120 calories," she said. "Do you know the size of a potato that has 120 calories? It's about 3 ounces." Any self-respecting baking potato in the supermarket usually weighs 6 to 8 ounces.

The Morton's of Chicago steakhouse chain prides itself on serving one-pound potatoes. Add a dinner roll or two, and a single meal contains the food pyramid's recommended carbohydrates for an entire day. The typical steak in these restaurants provides the meat ration for a week.

And often, when served food like this, customers finish it. It's what Young calls the See-Food Diet _ "You see it, so you eat it."

But is this really new? Isn't the heaping farmhouse portion as American as Norman Rockwell? Yes, but in the past, life was less sedentary and those calories were burned off. "I grew up in Tennessee in the 1950s," said Morris, the nutrition counselor in Winnipeg. "My mother never cooked anything without adding bacon grease, but we were lean and mean. We had to push our lawn mowers across the lawn in those days."

Television also takes its toll, especially since commercial breaks bombard the viewer with messages about food and drink and serve as excuses to raid the refrigerator.

And Americans today eat out more than in the past, with restaurant portions larger than ever. In 1993, the percentage of food dollars spent on food prepared outside the home reached an all-time high of 43.1 percent, according to the National Restaurant Association, compared with 25 percent in 1955.

It is obvious from government statistics that despite the barrage of nutrition information, Americans are overeating. And though the array of low-fat and fat-free foods grows by the day, they continue to gain weight.

"People haven't a clue about how much they're eating," said Marion Nestle, the chairwoman of the department of nutrition at New York University. "Even many nutritionists can't tell what a portion is any more. But now everybody is starting to think about it. Calories do matter."