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A Five-Step Program To Help You Count Calories Wisely

Paul Simon is a physician and director of Los Angeles County's Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention. Credit: Los Angeles County Department of Public Health

Paul Simon is a physician and director of Los Angeles County's Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention. Credit: Los Angeles County Department of Public Health

In this tweet-driven, entertainment-focused world, it’s hard to break through the clutter. But the giant bus advertisement featuring two plates of bacon, eggs and pancakes caught my eye. “Do just a couple extra pancakes and two slices of bacon really make a 400-calorie difference?”

It does. And now I know the consequences.

After years of imploring people to eat more leafy, green vegetables and use the stairs rather than the elevator, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health is trying a different tactic as part of its “Choose Health LA” campaign. Give people the information they need to make healthier choices, even if it’s simply less of an unhealthy choice.

Portion control is the latest weapon in America’s battle against obesity.

“We understand it’s a bit of a shift,” says Paul Simon, a physician and director of the county’s Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention. “Here we are promoting some foods that aren’t viewed as particularly healthy. But what we’re saying is, “If you’re going to eat this, at least eat less.”

An advertisement used in the Choose Health LA campaign. Credit: Los Angeles County Department of Public Health

An advertisement used in the Choose Health LA campaign. Credit: Los Angeles County Department of Public Health

While the dramatic rise in obesity levels in America has slowed in recent years, the overall picture is sobering. More than one-third of all adults in this country are obese, and by 2030 an estimated 42% will be overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obesity is approaching tobacco use as the leading preventable cause of death in the United States and is an important risk factor for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, arthritis and many forms of cancer.

There is some good news. Intensive health education, mandatory fitness testing and the passage of a law restricting the sale of sugary beverages on school campuses seems to have paid off in California, according to Simon. Between 1999 and 2005, the obesity rates among fifth-, seventh- and ninth-grade students in Los Angeles County climbed 1% every year — an increase of 15,000 more obese children annually. But in 2005, those obesity levels plateaued and appear to be on the decline. A similar improvement was seen among preschool children enrolled in a federal program that provides nutritional counseling and subsidized food for low-income families.

But the same is not true for these children’s parents. Among adults in Los Angeles County, the obesity level nearly doubled to 23.6% between 1997 and 2011. Health officials are pursuing a variety of tactics in their battle against the obesity epidemic, from the expansion of bike paths and workplace wellness programs to encouraging supermarkets to promote healthier purchases. Next up: a program that will reward restaurateurs who offer healthy dining options, such as smaller portions, offering to box up half-portions and ample access to water.

Not everyone likes these ideas, particularly when they cut into profits. Beverage companies and business groups have filed a lawsuit to stop New York City’s ban on the sale of supersized sodas and other sugary drinks. Some of those same companies have complained about L.A. County’s campaign against sugary beverages. One of those ads showed a bottle of soda being poured into a glass filled with sugar packs and the question, “YOU WOULDN’T EAT 22 PACKS OF SUGAR, WHY ARE YOU DRINKING THEM?”

Need to count calories? Here are simple ways to keep numbers in check

Interested in learning more about combating calorie creep? Check out the “Choose Health LA,” website, which offers a slew of interesting factoids and the following advice:

Think small:  Everything in the kitchen — from portions to dinnerware — has grown since the 1950s. The surface area of the average dinner plate has increased by more than one-third over that period.  Try substituting a salad plate for your dinner plate, making it easier to keep your portions small. And reduce the temptation to over-consume by serving up single portions, leaving the serving bowls on the counter.

Avoid mindless eating:  Sit down in front of your television with a small bowl of snacks and leave the bag in the cupboard.  Just 10 extra calories a day — a stick of Doublemint gum or three small Jelly Belly jelly beans — will add a pound to your waistline in a year, according to Brian Wansink, food psychologist and author of “Mindless Eating, Why We Eat More Than We Think.”

Ditch the “clean plate” club:  The average restaurant meal today is more than four times larger than in the 1950s. When dining out, don’t hesitate to leave food on your plate, share entrees or ask for a doggie bag for the leftovers.

Downsize your fast food: Hamburgers are four times larger today than they were in the 1950s. By choosing the smaller version of a burger, soft drink and fries over the supersized version, you can save 570 calories, which is more than one-quarter of your daily caloric needs.

Sip smartly: Substitute water, low-sugar or unsweetened beverages or nonfat or low-fat milk for sugary beverages. To find out just how much you could save by cutting back on your soda fix or frozen coffee drink, check out Choose Health LA’s  sugar calculator.

Top photo: Paul Simon is a physician and director of Los Angeles County’s Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention. Credit: Los Angeles County Department of Public Health

Zester Daily contributor Evelyn Iritani, a former economics writer for the Los Angeles Times, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for a series she co-authored on Wal-Mart's impact on the global economy. An interest in Japan, her family's ancestral homeland, was the inspiration for her book, "An Ocean Between Us: The Changing Relationship of Japan and the United States Told in Four Stories From the Life of an American Town." In her spare time, she loves making wickedly rich desserts and herding cows in Montana.

  • Matthew 5·25·13

    wouldnt it be more effective to use an action appeal as opposed to an inaction appeal? you’re trying to create behavior change, after all… you need to suggest an alternative

  • Evelyn Iritani 5·25·13


    I think the main action appeal in this campaign is to eat less of the unhealthy food — and presumably more of the healthy food. I’d love to hear your ideas. What kind of action appeal are you talking about?


  • Lynn S 6·18·13

    Loved the article. I think the action appeal is for people to become more aware and take steps to making healthier choices. I am 56 and allowed lack of action and mid life to put 65 pounds on me. I hate the weight. I am already doing much of what you are suggesting and eating more natural foods (nothing in a box, bag or bottle to avoid GMO), avoiding white sugar for the most part, and drinking filtered or alkaline water to eliminate the toxins. I am 20 lbs down now and well on my way to a happier, healthier me.

    Action Appeal? It is not up to the government to make our choices for us. It is up to each of us to take personal responsibility and know the issues. The grass roots movement is more effective in the long run.