Monday, August 21, 2000

Americans take ethnic foods out of proportion

By Sally Squires
The Washington Post

        As Americans continue to embrace ethnic cuisine, nutrition experts say that they often make the mistake of “supersizing” international foods — a trend that helps fuel the growing girth of the nation.

        “Our eyes are getting used to everything being so big, they cannot keep the original recipe in the same proportion,” says Wahida Karmally, a registered dietitian and associate research scientist at Columbia University in New York. “We are losing sight of actual portion sizes.”

        Take croissants. In France, the traditional croissant is about the size of a saucer. But on this side of the Atlantic, “we get croissants that look like they are on steroids,” says registered dietitian Keith Ayoob, a national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Often, they are much larger than those served in France, Mr. Ayoob says, “and then we stuff them with ham, cheese, chocolate or whatever, so it becomes something considerably higher in calories than it was ever intended to be.”

        Asian food also bulks up when served in the United States. Noodle dishes average about one ounce of meat per serving even in Hong Kong restaurants, according to Georgia Guldan, a professor in the Food and Nutritional Sciences Programme at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Home-cooked family meals generally consist of steamed fish or meat served with some stir-fried vegetables and rice. But where a half-pound of meat or fish is often a serving size in the United States, that amount often serves three people in Hong Kong, Mr. Guldan notes. And a single spring roll or egg roll is usually cut and shared by two to three people.

        Dessert is where the gap between Eastern and Western eating habits really widens. While Americans tend to go for a large slice of cake or a big bowl of ice cream, dessert in Hong Kong is more likely to be “a few bites of fruit or a "small' (1/2 to 3/4 cup) serving of sweet soup with red beans or ginger and sweet potato — not nearly the caloric or fat equivalent of the Western dessert,” Mr. Guldan says.

        The supersize phenomenon has even spilled into beverages. Today, everything from cappuccino to latte comes in medium, large, and what Ayoob calls “gigunda” sizes. “There's nothing labeled small,” he says.

        That's why nutrition experts advise consumers going ethnic to pay close attention to portion sizes. Pizza in Italy is not only smaller than in the United States, but it also generally contains less cheese and many more vegetables, such as eggplant, according to Karmally.

        Same goes for pasta, which has mutated at “all you can eat” Italian restaurants in the United States to individual portions big enough to serve an entire family. “In Italy, you don't get anywhere near the portion of pasta that you do here,” Ayoob says. One to two cups of pasta topped with a smattering of sauce is the norm. “But then,” he says, “the whole approach to eating in Europe is a little bit different.”

        Meals are more leisurely abroad, giving diners a chance to savor their food and feel sated. Experts say what Americans often miss in assimilating international cuisine is not just the portion sizes but also the style of eating. In Europe, says Ayoob, eating dinner “is the evening entertainment. ... The idea in this country is, "Let's get in, let's get those calories and then let's get out.' We have to do it quick.”

        When Ms. Karmally, a native of India, eats out, she not only tries to take her time, but also keeps portion sizes in balance by ordering one or two appetizers in place of an entree. And when she has a craving for dosa, a large pancake dish filled with potatoes and onions, she still orders it. “But then,” she says, “I split it with my husband.”