Adults aren't the only ones whose diets can suffer as a result of hectic modern lifestyles. According to a new Penn State study, children overeat significantly when served large portions of popular, calorie-dense (CD) foods. Researchers suggest that controlling calorie content and portion size can significantly reduce children's overall calorie intake.
Researchers at Penn's Department of Nutritional Sciences argue that the best way to tackle kids' tendency toward overindulgence is to serve up an alternative diet. They say commercially available low CD items, like un-breaded, grilled chicken pieces and reduced-sugar applesauce, can turn up big results on health without turning up too many noses.
"Strategies to reduce calories can be easily implemented in homes and childcare settings, and can be strategically combined with changes in portion size by serving larger portions of lower-CD foods with smaller portions of higher-CD foods," says Barbara Rolls, professor of nutritional science and co-author of the study. The study is published in the journal Physiology & Behavior.
For the study, researchers served up lunches of varying portion size and CD to children in three separate childcare centers — the normal eating environments for those taking part. The special lunches were provided once a week for six weeks to 120 children ages 3 to 5 years. Across the six meals, all items were served at three levels of portion size — 100%, 150% or 200%, and two levels of caloric density — 100% or 142%.
The menu offered either lower-calorie or higher-calorie versions of what appeared to be the same dishes: chicken, macaroni and cheese, vegetables, applesauce, ketchup and milk. When the children were asked to rate the food they'd eaten, it turned out the lower-calorie and higher-calorie meals achieved similar levels of approval.
However, the combination of larger portion and higher CD meals meant the children's energy consumption increased by as much as 175 calories — or 79% — in a single meal. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), children ages 3 to 5 should have a daily intake of between 1,000 and 1,400 calories (depending on age, sex and activity levels) meaning the high CD meals represent a significant increase.
According to the researchers, few children were able to resist these effects. "We previously demonstrated that larger portions have a huge impact on children's intake," says Samantha Kling, co-author of the study. "We found that serving larger portions of food, along with higher-calorie-density options of those foods, led to the children consuming larger amounts of food and more calories overall."
Moderating the portion size and caloric density of the kinds of foods typically eaten by children, she says, could effectively reduce caloric intake without affecting acceptability. "There is a belief that young kids can self-regulate their food intake," says Rolls. "This study shows those signals are really easy to override." Indeed, we've already seen how, despite the efforts of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, children are throwing away more healthy fruit and veggies than ever.
"Strategies that moderate the effects of portion size are practical and effective in reducing calorie intake," adds Rolls. "However, policy makers and food producers need to provide the resources and products to help parents and caregivers counter pervasive influences." So maybe, even if gentle persuasion won't help kids make better choices, a little sneaky substitution just might.