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Kids face super-size problem, study shows

by Laura Schocker
Oct 16, 2008

Researchers from Temple University in Philadelphia found that children tend to serve themselves more food when they’re offered larger amounts. Jennifer Orlet Fisher, lead author on the study and associate professor in the Department of Public Health at Temple, and her team presented the findings at the Obesity Society’s scientific meeting in Phoenix last week.

“Children are not only driven by hunger in eating, but by the environment, the social environment and literally the environment of the table,” Fisher said. “There was something about having these large amounts of entree present that had children serve themselves more.”

The study looked at 63 children over the course of several meals, with macaroni and cheese as the main dish.  Depending on the day, the serving bowl contained an age-appropriate amount of the entree or twice as much.  Children tended to serve themselves more when the super-size portions were available, than they did with the “normal” portions.

The study, which echoes similar findings in adults, comes at a time when childhood obesity and overweight rates have been on the rise. About 17 percent of children ages 2 to 19 were overweight in 2003 and 2004, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Toby Smithson, a registered dietitian for the Lake County Health Department and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association in Chicago, said there is a direct link between portion sizes and weight gain.

“The more you eat, the more weight you’re going to gain unless you’re balancing it out with exercise,” Smithson said. “There’s definitely a cause and effect there.”

It takes just 500 extra calories a day to gain a pound per week, Smithson said, so controlling portions is key for controlling weight.

“All of our portion sizes have become much larger.  That’s what we’re getting used to,” Smithson said. “It’s really, really easy to get the extra calories.”

She offered these suggestions for helping your kids to downsize their portions.

•    Regular-size, not super size.  “When you’re eating out at a restaurant,” she said, “order the small or regular size portions.
•    Read.  “Read the food label and serve the serving size that’s on the label,
 Smithson said, adding that this is a perfect opportunity to teach children about how to understand the labels. “Your food label is your window of opportunity to see what’s in the food.”
•    Revisit the family meal.  “The recommendations are to serve your meals family style so that your child can serve himself or herself instead of you portioning it out.  You hope that you’re tapping into their intuitiveness of how much they want to eat,” she said.”
•    Role model.  “If you’re the parent, don’t super-size your meals either,” Smithson said, emphasizing the importance of setting a good example. “Show your kids that you’re thinking about your portion sizes.”