These days, lots of us eat too much and don't realize it because we've become so used to seeing (and eating!) large portions.
The Problems of Eating Too Much
People who often overeat are likely to become overweight. They also risk getting a number of medical problems, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, bone and joint problems, breathing and sleeping problems, and even depression. Adults who are overweight or obese are at greater risk for heart disease, heart failure, and stroke.
It's easy to understand why the food industry tends to serve way more food than is necessary: Customers love to feel like they're getting the best value for their money! But the value meal is no deal when it triples our calories and sets the stage for health problems.
The Truth About Serving Sizes
One reason that people eat too much at meals is that they tend to eat what's on their plate. As portions have increased, so have the calories we eat. So it's helpful to understand the difference between serving sizes and recommended amounts of different foods.
The serving size on a food label is not telling you the amount you should eat. 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 that 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 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. Let's say you buy a 3-ounce bag of cookies and you eat the whole bag. If the label shows the serving size is 1 ounce, not only did you have 3 servings, you also had 3 times the listed calories as well as 3 times the sugar.
Serving sizes tell you how much nutrition you're getting from a food but they don't tell you which foods you need to stay healthy — or how much of those foods to eat. That's where the U.S. Department of Agriculture's MyPlate comes in.
MyPlate is based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It can help you get the right mix and amount of food for you and your family.
What to Look for
A great way to think about healthy 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. Dividing the plate this way not only will help you keep portions under control, but will help you serve more balanced meals to your family.
Parents need to take control of our own portion sizes and help kids learn to do the same.
Here are some tips:
Getting Kids Involved
Get kids actively involved in figuring out how much 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 doable.
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.
The above information was published to Kidshealth.Org by Nemours Children's Health System and reviewed by Mary L. Gavin, MD June 2018.