Clean plate a weighty problem

Mom's edict turns into health issue

November 12, 2003|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Back home in Harlan County, Ky., Lester Sturgill recalls that meals were heavy with gravy, biscuits and fried pork chops, and when you sat down at the family table you were not expected to walk away until the food was gone - all of it. A clean plate was a cosmic thing, something that might even affect the weather.

"My mother would say, `If you eat all the food off your plate, it's going to be a good day tomorrow,' " says Sturgill, 54, who now lives in Baltimore.

Many clean plates have since gone by. Too many, perhaps, as Sturgill, who stands not quite 5-foot-7, weighs in at about 260 pounds, and that's after losing 69 pounds in five months on the Weight Watchers program.

All those American moms and all that instruction and all those clean plates have, alas, added up to something certain nutritionists call "Clean-Plate Syndrome." The effects of this tendency are apt to grow more troublesome as this holiday season unfolds in a stream of turkeys, roasts, whipped buttered potatoes, pies, yams with marshmallows ...

The body says: "I'm full, uh, thank you very much ... Enough already ... Stop. ... "

The fork, knife, mouth yet go on, eating until the plate or plates are clean, as if compelled by some posthypnotic suggestion.

Blame well-intentioned parents, if you like, or some combination of culture and tradition and notions that have evidently outlived their usefulness.

Sturgill, director of nursing at the Rock Glen Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in West Baltimore, says his mother's advice probably made sense at the time, seeing as how the family had little money and food could not be wasted. And, of course, Mom usually threw in a pitch for starving children everywhere.

Now, with the help of Weight Watchers, Sturgill is having to learn new habits: Take smaller portions. Don't clean the plate.

Folks like Sturgill are attracting more attention lately from food and health professionals, some of whom draw connections between "Clean-Plate Syndrome" and America's burgeoning fatness.

The best estimates lately say more than half, perhaps up to two-thirds, of Americans can be considered overweight, resulting in a higher incidence of weight-related health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

The trouble can be safely linked with a cluster of behaviors. Surely you've heard the drill: sedentary way of life, too much television, video gaming and junk food, not enough exercise, fruit and vegetables, and so on. And, oh yes, eating too much.

By all accounts, portion sizes in restaurants - particularly chain restaurants - and in packaged foods have been growing for 15 years or more. In addition, a number of studies suggest that, when presented with more food, people eat more, up to half again as many calories in some research reports. Hence the clean-plate question enters the picture, and holidays pose particular risk to those inclined to gain weight.

The American Institute for Cancer Research found this important enough to be worth a look. The Washington-based organization conducted identical telephone surveys in 2000 and this year. In questioning more than 1,000 adults each time, AICR found a pattern of plate-cleaning.

The more recent survey, conducted in June, found that 69 percent of those responding said they finish restaurant entrees most or all of the time, up a couple points since the first survey. The number of women who say they always finish their entree has doubled since the first poll to 18 percent.

Nearly a third of those surveyed said they base the amount they eat on the amount they're served, up a few points since the 2000 survey.

The plate-cleaning tendency got the folks at AICR wondering: Where did this come from? The search turned up an historical irony, in that the clean-plate impulse was advanced as a national ethic to conserve food in lean times, not to encourage gluttony amid abundance.

It started with the Congress of 1917, which in the interest of conserving food during wartime gave President Wilson the power to regulate the food industry. Months before this, the United States had entered World War I by declaring war against Germany.

Wilson created the U.S. Food Administration, which campaigned to reduce U.S. food consumption. Americans were asked to sign cards attesting to their effort to save food. Local newspapers published reports on the percentage of households that had signed on.

The clean plate became a patriotic emblem, touted by an array of posters issued by federal and state agencies. The message: Don't waste food by taking larger portions than you can finish.

A U.S. Food Administration poster said: "Adopt the doctrine of the clean plate - do your share." A New York state poster proclaimed "The Gospel of the Clean Plate," reminding the reader that "Thousands are Starving in Europe."

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