Bagels as big as frisbees. Muffins the size of flower pots. Bowls of pasta so deep, your fork can barely find the bottom.
It's not surprising that waistlines of kids and adults have been expanding over the last few decades. Part of the problem is undoubtedly what families eat — too much saturated fat, too much sugar, and not enough nutrients.
But another part has as much to do with quantity as quality. Are our plates simply piled too high?
Portion sizes began to increase in the 1980s and have been growing ever since. Our perception of portions has become so distorted over time that, research shows, it's hard for us to recognize what a normal portion looks like.
Take bagels, for example: 20 years ago, most bagels had a 3-inch diameter and 140 calories; today they have a 6-inch diameter and 350 calories. Eat one and you've just consumed three servings of grains — that's half the recommended number of grain servings for the entire day.
In fact, we've become so desensitized to "big food" that we don't bat an eye when restaurants offer us things like neverending pasta bowls, bottomless fries, or 52-ounce mugs of soda. And we don't think it's strange that, in some cafés, we can't even order a "small" anymore — just variations of big, bigger, and biggest. No wonder car manufacturers had to start building bigger cup holders!
The price we pay for such overabundance is high. Kids and adults who consistently overeat are at risk for developing weight problems and the medical problems associated with being overweight, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, bone and joint problems, breathing and sleeping problems, and even depression. Later in life they are at greater risk for heart disease, heart failure, and stroke.
One reason that kids and adults eat too much at meals is that they tend to eat what's on their plate. Thus, as portions have gone up, so have the calories consumed. So it's helpful to understand the difference between serving sizes and recommended amounts of different foods.
Serving sizes. Contrary to popular belief, the serving size on a food label is not telling you the amount you should be eating. The serving size is a guide to help you see how many calories and nutrients — as well as how much fat, sugar, and salt — are in a specific quantity of that food.
Sometimes the serving size on the food label will be a lot less than you are used to eating or serving. In some cases, it's perfectly OK (and even a good idea) to eat and serve more than the serving size listed. For example, if you're cooking frozen vegetables and see the serving size is 1 cup, it's no problem to serve or eat more because most vegetables are low in calories and fat yet high in nutrition.
But when it comes to foods that are high in calories, sugar, or fat, the serving size is a useful guide to alert you that you may be getting more than is healthy. If your son gulps down a 20-ounce bottle of soda in one sitting, the amount he consumed is 20 ounces. But if the label shows the serving size is 8 ounces, not only did he have 2½ servings, he also had 2½ times the listed calories as well as 2½ times the sugar.
Recommended amounts. Serving sizes tell you how much nutrition you're getting from a particular food but they don't tell you which foods you need to stay healthy — or how much of those foods you should eat. That's where the U.S. Department of Agriculture's MyPlate comes in.
MyPlate provides recommendations based on the government's 2010 Dietary Guidelines that can help you figure out how much food kids and adults should have, based on age, gender, and activity level. Once you know that, you can decide how much of those heaping restaurant portions your family should actually eat!
Now that we're so used to overdoing it, is it possible to bring portion sizes back to earth? Yes. But first we have to understand how much food our bodies need as opposed to how much they want.
A great way to visualize appropriate portion sizes is to use the concept of the "divided plate." Think of a plate divided into four equal sections:
The foods in each section should not overlap or be piled high. Partitioning the plate this way not only will help you keep portions under control, but will help you to serve more balanced meals to your family.
Picture your favorite meal at your favorite restaurant. Now picture it 75% smaller. Would you be a happy customer?
It's easy to understand why the food industry tends to serve us way more food than is necessary: We all love to feel like we're getting more bang for our buck. But that's also why it's important to take responsibility for our own portions and to help kids learn to do the same.
Here are some tips:
If you preach to your kids about portion control, chances are they'll tune out faster than you can say Big Gulp. A better way to go is to get them actively involved in figuring out how much is a reasonable amount to eat.
A serving of rice is about the same size as an ice cream scoop, so let your child use the scoop to serve "rice cream" to the family. A piece of meat should be about the size of a deck of cards, so see how that chicken breast measures up. And why not break out the kitchen scale while you're at it? Weighing or measuring food may not be your idea of fun, but it probably is to your kids — plus it's a great way to reinforce math concepts.
One easy way to size up portions if you don't have any measurements is to use your hand as a guide. Kids have smaller hands than adults, so it serves as a reminder that kids should eat smaller portions:
And don't forget the good news about portions: they work both ways. You may want to cut back on spaghetti portions, but you can dish out more than one serving of carrots or green beans. This can help make the "five a day" fruit and vegetable goal more attainable.
Remember the role you play in showing kids how to size up portions. If you eat two heaping helpings of food each night, that's what your kids will learn too.
As kids grow, their appetites will vary depending on a number of things. They tend to be more hungry during growth spurts or sports seasons when they're more active, and less hungry during downtimes. As their appetites change, keep serving right-sized portions and encourage them to slow down to enjoy their food. Then check in on whether they're full before they go for seconds.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: January 2015
|Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Offering nutrition information, resources, and access to registered dietitians.|
|American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) The AAP is committed to the health and well-being of infants, adolescents, and young adults. The website offers news articles and tips on health for families.|
|ChooseMyPlate.gov ChooseMyPlate.gov provides practical information on how to follow the U.S. government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It includes resources and tools to help families lead healthier lives.|
|Food Guide Pyramid Becomes a Plate Goodbye, Food Guide Pyramid! Hello, MyPlate! The USDA's divided plate is designed to make it easier to understand healthy eating.|
|Go, Slow, and Whoa! A Kid's Guide to Eating Right Want to eat healthier? It's easy when you learn the difference between Go, Slow, and Whoa foods!|
|Go, Slow, and Whoa! A Quick Guide to Healthy Eating Looking for an easy way to eat healthier? This article provides tips on choosing the right foods - and an easy-to-follow chart to guide you.|
|5 Ways to Reach a Healthy Weight Most dieters regain the weight they lost by dieting when they go back to their old eating habits. Get our tips on the best ways to drop excess weight.|
|Food Labels Look at any packaged food and you'll see the food label. This nutrition facts label gives the lowdown on everything from calories to cholesterol. Read more about food labels.|
|Eating Well While Eating Out We all know the importance of eating well. But how are you supposed to do so when your schedule is so demanding you're never at home? Find out how to make healthy food choices on the go.|
|Cooking With Kids Inviting kids into the kitchen to help you cook can be a great way to create quality together time and help your child learn and refine some basic skills.|
|Figuring Out Food Labels Find out how to make healthy food choices for your family by reading food labels.|
|How Can Families Be Healthier? Involving the whole family is the best way to promote healthful eating and activities for your kids.|
|Kids and Food: 10 Tips for Parents Here are 10 simple tips to help you raise kids who develop healthy eating habits!|
|Breakfast Basics Even if you eat a healthy morning meal every day, it can be tough to get kids fueled up. Here's how to make breakfast more appealing.|
|Smart Supermarket Shopping You don't need to be a dietitian to figure out how to make healthy food choices. Before grabbing a shopping cart and heading for the aisles, read this article to make grocery shopping a snap.|
|Figuring Out Fat and Calories From all you hear, you'd think fat and calories are really bad for you, but we all need a certain amount of them in our diets. Find out the truth about fat and calories.|
|Overweight and Obesity It's an alarming statistic: 1 out of 3 U.S. kids are considered overweight or obese. Find out how to overcome overweight and obesity in your own family.|
|How Much Food Should I Eat? Lots of us don't realize we're eating too much because we've become so used to large portions. This article for teens helps you take control of your plate.|
|What Kids Say About: What They Eat This KidsPoll survey asked kids about their eating habits. Did they eat vegetables and drink their milk? Find out!|
|Eating for Sports Eating nutritious foods and the right drinks can help you perform better on the playing field. Learn how to eat for sports by reading this article for kids.|
|Figuring Out Food Labels The food label on a food package is a lot like the table of contents in a book - it tells you exactly what the food contains. Read our article for kids for more about food labels.|
|Smart Snacking Healthy snacks are essential for busy teens. Find out how eating nutritious snacks throughout the day can keep your energy level high and your mind alert.|
|Healthy Drinks for Kids What kids drink can drastically affect the amount of calories consumed, as well as the amount of calcium needed to build strong bones.|
|Motivating Kids to Be Active Parents can help instill a love of activity and help kids make it a part of their everyday routine.|
|How to Read a Nutrition Facts Label (Video) These labels, usually found on the back of food packages, can be hard to understand. Here's how to read them.|
|5 Ways to Get Your 5 a Day You may know that you should eat 5 servings of fruit and vegetables a day. Here are some tips on making that happen.|
|Healthy Eating Good nutrition and a balanced diet help kids grow up healthy. Here's how to improve nutrition and encourage smart eating habits.|
|Is Dieting OK for Kids? What is dieting and should kids do it, too? Find out in this article for kids.|
What to expect when coming to Akron Children's
For healthcare providers and nurses
Residency & Fellowships, Medical Students, Nursing and Allied Health
For prospective employees and career-seekers
Our online community that provides inspirational stories and helpful information.