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Penkava: Still super-sized after all these meals

Published: Saturday, June 21, 2014 12:02 a.m. CDT

I think my first experience with the super-sized world of uncontrolled food portioning was when I was a little boy and my mom would reward me for going grocery shopping with her by buying me my own Sara Lee cheesecake.

I would go home, uncrinkle the flexible aluminum ring encircling its round container, lift off the pasteboard cover and scarf it up like a dust ball in a vacuum. Whoosh … super-sized!

But back then, the super-sized concept basically was limited to special occasions, such as spending a fake school sick day at home and discovering a virgin package of Oreos or busting into a 24-bottle case of Coca-Cola with a friend at a sleepover. Other than that, we’d have to fight over second helpings of Jello and negotiate for gravy on our potatoes.

As for fast food, I remember going to the first-ever McDonald’s in Des Plaines. You could get a hamburger for 15 cents. Fries and a Coke were both 10 cents. If you really wanted to splurge, you could get a triple-thick shake for 20 cents. My parents usually gave me a budget of 50 cents, so I’d order two burgers, fries and a Coke. Quite enough food for a skinny 10-year-old.

What is interesting is when we fast forward to the present and order those same items at a fast food restaurant. In the 1950s, a hamburger was less than 4 ounces; today it is at least 12. French fries were a little over 2 ounces; now they are almost 7. And McDonald’s Coca-Cola came in 7-ounce cups, not 42-ounce mini-buckets.

In other words, today, the average restaurant meal is close to four times the size of what it used to be. That would translate that as a kid I would have had a lunch of eight hamburgers, four fries and six Cokes. Talk about died and gone to super-sized heaven!

This incredible portion increase would explain why that since the 1960s the average woman weighs about 25 pounds more and the average man has packed on an additional 28 pounds of squeezable pudginess. That’s like each of us carrying around the extra mass of a 2-year-old kid inside our bodies. Geesh.

I remember back in 2004 when the movie “Super Size Me” was released. Some guy ate his total diet at McDonald’s three times a day for a month, consuming every item on the menu at least once. By the end of the month, he had gained almost 25 pounds and had a cholesterol level of 230. He had consumed over 30 pounds of sugar and 12 pounds of fat during that time period. He experienced heart problems, emotional disorders, sexual dysfunctions and liver damage. Other than that, life was as mellow as the secret sauce on a Big Mac.

But let’s not lay all the blame of our super-sized love affair on McDonald’s. Wherever we go to eat out, we are offered Viking-like portions. We do not eat off plates anymore, we dine on platters. We can casually consume by ourselves the number of calories at one meal that a family of four did 50 years ago. If Eric the Red ate out now, even he’d need a doggy bag.

Now, not all of us have bought into the practice of nutritional supersization. But it would seem that, as a society, we are clearly on the fat track to obesity. Who knows, 50 years from now, instead of having the mass of a 2-year-old inside of us, we’ll probably have internalized a super-sized, sugarcoated teenager.

• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. He once ate at Five Guys Burgers and Fries for a month and later gave birth to a heifer. He can be reached at

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