Children Eat More When Given More Food
Children’s bite size and food intake increases when they are served larger portions, according to a new study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2003;77:1164–70). These findings suggest that a relatively simple way to combat obesity would be to reduce portion sizes at meals.
More than 25% of children in the United States are now classified as overweight or obese; these figures have increased dramatically in the past thirty years. Increased availability of inexpensive, highly refined, high-calorie foods plays an important role in the growing prevalence of both childhood and adult obesity. Another factor that could be contributing to this trend is the increasing amount of food served at many meals. Portion sizes in the United States have been growing along with the incidence of overweight since the 1970s. Portions offered by fast-food chains, for example, are now often two to five times larger than their original size. Recent data indicates that portion sizes of foods prepared and eaten outside of the home are now two to eight times larger than recommended serving sizes. Families in the United States spend an average of one third of their food budget on prepared and restaurant foods. Children are therefore likely to be frequently exposed to large portions of food. The influence of this exposure on the amount of food eaten and on childhood weight is not known.
In the current study, 30 children three to six years of age were divided into two groups for two series of experimental lunches. During the first series of lunches, one group received age-appropriate portions of an entrée, along with several side items, and the other group received large portions (twice the age-appropriate amount) of the entrée along with identical side items, for four lunches. At two subsequent lunches, all of the children were given the large portions in serving bowls and were instructed to dish out whatever portion sizes they desired. The groups were reversed for the second series of four lunches, which was again followed by two self-serve lunches.
The menu was the same for all the lunches: an entrée of macaroni and cheese, with milk, applesauce, carrots, and cookies as side items. Children’s bite sizes and food consumption significantly increased when served the larger portion. Children ate on average 25% more of the entrée and 15% more of the entire meal when served the large portions than when served the age-appropriate portions. In the self-serve lunches after both lunch series, children consistently dished out and consumed amounts that were similar to the age-appropriate portions.
The results of this study demonstrate that providing children with large servings increases their food consumption. In another study, adults served large portions at four lunches consumed 30% more calories than did those served half as much food. It is reasonable to speculate from these results that frequent exposure to large portions is an important factor in promoting over-consumption of food and obesity. Overweight children are twice as likely as normal weight children to become overweight adults. The prevalence of adult overweight and obesity in the United States, now at 61%, has doubled in the last ten years and is the highest in the world. This epidemic of obesity has a far-reaching impact on public health and on healthcare. Attention to portion sizes should, therefore, be emphasized in dietary recommendations, and by parents, cafeteria aides, and others who are responsible for dishing out food.
Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, Vermont, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.
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