In 1974, an editorial in The Lancet, a medical journal, identified obesity as “the most important nutritional disease in the affluent countries of the world.” And yet, a quarter of a century later, obesity has reached epidemic proportions in this country. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 61 percent of U.S. adults are either overweight or obese and about 15 percent of children are overweight. Last week, Daily Journal food editor Ginna Parsons sat down with Greta Heru, program coordinator for the Southeast United Dairy Industry Association, and talked about how oversized food portions have contributed to Mississippi's adult obesity rate, which at 25.9 percent, is the highest in the nation.

Q. What causes us to become obese?

A. The bottom line is, not enough activity and taking in too many calories. In the last 10 years, we've become more of an eat-out society at restaurants where you get more for your money. We don't know what a normal size portion is anymore. And people have become more sedentary – watching TV, playing computer games. We've gone up with calories and down with activity.

Q. How does portion size affect obesity?

A. Truly, we have totally forgotten what a reasonable portion size is except maybe at school, where they're required to serve normal portion sizes. When people see exaggerated portions in restaurants, that's what they expect to see at home, so it's not just a problem at restaurants. The first thing we have to do is get an idea of what a good, normal portion size is. For instance, a serving of pasta is a half-cup, or about the size of a tennis ball. But many restaurants serve a big bowl of pasta that may have as much as three cups of pasta in it. That's six servings of starch. When we overeat in certain food groups, we tend not to eat in others – mainly fruit, vegetables and dairy products – which are better for us. We should eat less of the pasta, add a couple of vegetables and have a cup of yogurt for dessert.

Q. Give me some examples of normal food portions.

A. A serving of meat is about the size of a deck of cards. A tennis ball is about a half-cup. Four dice is the equivalent of an ounce, or a serving, of cheese. An ounce of nuts is about what you can hold in the palm of your hand. A teaspoon of butter is the size of the end of your thumb. The Food Guide Pyramid says we're supposed to eat six to 11 servings of grains a day. One serving of grains is a slice of bread or a half-cup of rice. A normal piece of fruit is about the size of a tennis ball. You see people eating these gargantuan apples. That's not a normal portion. But then again, that's not where our problem is. We're not obese because we're eating big apples.

Q. How do portion sizes today compare with those a few years ago?

A. Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reported earlier this year a study showed that a soft drink today is 52 percent larger than it was 20 years ago; a snack, whether potato chips , pretzels or crackers, is 60 percent larger; a hamburger is 23 percent larger; and a plate of food at a Mexican restaurant is 27 percent larger. Just about all your fast-food restaurants now offer super-sized value meals that are double and triple the amount we should be eating. A report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that serving larger food portions results in people eating more. In one case, people ate 30 percent more calories when offered. When you give people more food, they're going to eat more food. We today are eating 300 calories more a day than we were in 1985. That's 30 pounds in a year. (There are approximately 3,500 calories in a pound; 300×365=109,500; 109,500 divided by 3,500 is 31.3.)

Q. What are some tips to help keep portion sizes in check?

A. First, use smaller plates. A smaller plate filled with food fools the eye. A colleague of mine was telling me that she bought an old house and it had the original dishwasher in it. Her new dinner plates were too big to fit in it. Also, you need to measure your food for a while to get a better idea of what you're eating. Literally measure out a half-cup of (cooked) pasta or rice. See what the normal portion is. You won't have to do this forever. Next, use a journal. Write everything down that you eat.

Q. Even a stick of gum or a piece of candy?

A. If you want a clear picture, write everything down. Making yourself aware of what you're eating is very important. Remember those old plastic picnic plates we used to have where there were two small places for food and one big one? Think of it that way. One small place is for meat. Another small place is for the starch. The large place is for vegetables. To get your dairy, have a glass of milk with your meal or put cheese on a vegetable or have yogurt for dessert.

Q. We talked earlier about portion sizes at restaurants. What if I'm at a restaurant that serves large portions or I go to an all-you-can-eat buffet?

A. If you go to a place that's not an all-you-can-eat, but gives large portions, take half of it home. Ask for a to-go container when you're served your meal. Put half in the container, close it up and push it aside. That way, you won't be tempted to eat but half. If you're dining with someone, split an entree and order an extra salad. If you have to go to an all-you-can-eat place, make one trip and stop. Try to put as many vegetables as you can on your plate and go sparingly on the other stuff. all-you-can-eat buffets may give you more for your money, but is that a real value when you look at the consequences of overeating? People have to come to the point where they say, “My health is more important than what I'm getting for my dollar.”

Q. What are the consequences of overeating?

A. Mississippi leads the nation in obesity and that's a serious, serious thing. Mississippi has hit the 25 percent range – 25 percent of the adult population is obese and children are not that far behind. We lead the pack in childhood obesity as well. Obesity leads to higher death rates, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and certain cancers. And obesity increases medical insurance costs. And that's not a value to anyone.

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