Even if you take junk food off the table, many toddlers and young children are getting fat and now we know why…

Everyone is quick to blame junk food for driving the childhood obesity epidemic, but even when eating healthy home cooked meals, more and more kids are in the uncomfortable position of being overweight or obese.

Despite the belief that young children will only eat what they truly need, new research found that, when served larger portions, preschoolers consumed more food, both by weight and calories.

The portion size effect

Penn State researchers examined whether children between the ages of three and five were susceptible to the portion size effect – the tendency of people to eat more when larger portions are served.

They found that when served larger portions of typical meals or snacks, the children consumed more food, both by weight and calories.

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What should parents do?

No good parent wants to deprive their children, but what should parents and caregivers do to ensure their little ones eat well?

Researcher Alissa Smethers, a doctoral student in nutritional sciences, says the findings suggest that caregivers should pay close attention to not just the amount of food they serve but also the variety of food.

“It’s hard to define portions that are appropriate for all preschoolers, since their calorie requirements vary due to differences in height, weight and activity level,” says Smethers. “But it’s a good idea to look at the proportions of different foods you’re serving, with fruits and vegetables filling up half the plate and with smaller portions of more calorie-dense foods, as recommended in the USDA MyPlate nutrition guide.”

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Use the portion size effect to get more fruit and veg in

Barbara Rolls, Helen A. Guthrie Chair and director of the Laboratory for the Study of Human Ingestive Behavior at Penn State, says that the results also suggest that the portion-size effect can be used strategically by caregivers to help children eat more fruits and vegetables.

“The positive side is that you can use the portion size effect strategically, for example by serving larger portions of fruits and vegetables to increase their consumption,” says Rolls. “You can also serve them at the start of the meal or on their own as snacks. When there are no other foods competing with them, kids may be more likely to eat them.”

What happened when kids’ food portion sizes increased?

The researchers recruited 46 preschoolers (three to five years) from childcare centres. During one five-day period, the kids received baseline-sized portions – based on Child and Adult Care Food Program requirements – and during another period had portions that were increased in size by 50 percent.

“In the larger portion meals, we wanted to serve portion sizes that the children might encounter in their everyday lives,” says Smethers. “For example, instead of getting four pieces of chicken nuggets, they would get six, for a 50 percent increase.”

During both five-day periods, the children were allowed to eat as much or as little of their meals or snacks as they wanted. After the children were done eating, the leftover foods were weighed to measure how much each child consumed.

Additionally, each child wore an accelerometer throughout each five-day period to measure their activity levels, and the researchers measured their height and weight.

Bigger portions led kids to eat 16% more

After analysing the data, the researchers found that serving larger portions led to the children eating 16 percent more food than when served the smaller portions, leading to an extra 18 percent of calories.

The researchers also found that children with higher BMI percentiles for their age were more likely to be influenced by larger portions. Additionally, the portion size effect seemed stronger in children with overweight or obesity than for children without.

Some kids are more susceptible

“We found that while the portion size effect is powerful overall, some children seemed to be more susceptible to the effect than others,” says Smethers. “Children who were rated by their parents as more responsive to food when it’s in front of them were also affected more by portion size, while children who were rated as paying attention to whether or not they were actually hungry were less affected by portion size.”

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Source: Penn State via www.sciencedaily.com

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