Americans are being manipulated by the food industry into eating far more than they need, or even want to, the groups, which collectively call themselves the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity, said.
People think they are getting bargains but they are just getting calories, said Melanie Polk, a registered dietitian at the American Institute for Cancer Research. "'Value marketing' is manipulation," Polk told a news conference.
The AICR, which advocates better diets to prevent cancer, teamed up with the Consumer Federation of America and the Center for Science in the Public Interest — the group that regularly publishes the surprising amounts of calories in foods such as pizza and Chinese takeout — for the campaign.
They want Americans to rebel against supersized and value-sized food portions. "We can speak up. Say 'small', say 'half' and say "share'," Polk said.
They recommend that people ask for half-sized portions in restaurants, even if they do not get them, and to always order the smallest portion available. Eventually, they say, the food industry will get the message and stop trying to stuff food down our gullets.
There are good reasons to do so. More than 60 percent of Americans are overweight and more than a quarter are obese, meaning they are 20 percent over ideal weight and face real health problems. Overweight people have a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.
The federal government estimates that a third of all cancer and heart disease and up to 80 percent of diabetes could be prevented if people ate less, ate better food and exercised more. Health costs related to obesity totaled $117 billion in 2000, the Health and Human Services Department says.
The food and restaurant industries have started to strike back at such campaigns, saying it is a lack of exercise and not eating more that is to blame. But Carol Tucker Foreman of the Consumer Federation said that is only partly true — people are really eating more, too.
"Americans' food intake has increased by 167 calories a day — an increase that theoretically works out to an extra 17 pounds of body fat every year," Foreman said.
Part of the reason — people get bigger portions when they eat out and thus think they are supposed to eat more.
"Most Americans care about their health and want to feed themselves and their families better," the CSPI's Margo Wootan said. "They don't realize just how many calories they are eating when they eat out and they are eating out much more than they did in the past."
Polk added: "As a result, we're super-sizing our kids and super-sizing ourselves."
It is cheap for restaurants to offer "super sizes" because the cost of the food itself is small, the group said — about 20 percent of the total retail cost.
They gave numbers.
"Upgrading from a three-ounce Minibon (cinnamon roll) to a Classic Cinnabon costs only 24 percent more, yet delivers 123 percent more calories ... (and) also provides almost three-quarters of a day's worth of artery-clogging saturated fat," the CSPI said.
Switching from 7-Eleven's Gulp to a Double Gulp costs just 37 cents, but provides 450 extra calories — more than in a McDonald's Quarter Pounder.
And it can cost more to get less.
"It costs eight cents more to purchase a McDonald's Quarter Pounder with Cheese, small French fries and a small Coke (890 calories) separately than to by the Quarter pounder with Cheese large Extra Value Meal, which comes with a large fries and large Coke (1,380 calories)."
Some calories come in unexpected places. A Starbuck's whole milk Caffe Latte has 210 calories in the "tall" 12-ounce size and 350 calories in a "venti" 20-ounce size.
At Subway, which promotes a weight-loss diet based on its sandwiches, a 6-inch tuna sub has 420 calories while a 12-inch version has 840 calories, 42 grams of fat and 10 grams of saturated fat for $1.53 more.
By Maggie Fox