Obesity affects 12.7 million children in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control from 2011 to 2014, the prevalence of obesity among 2- to 5-year-olds was 8.9%, among 6 to 11-year-olds was 17.9%, and among 12- to19-year-olds was 20.5%. Rates among Hispanic children and lower income children were even higher.
One of the leading causes of childhood obesity is excess energy intake. Energy comes in the form of calories from the foods we eat and drink. When the calories being taken in exceed the calories being burned, weight gain happens. The calories could come from high calorie, low nutrient dense foods and drinks. They could also be coming from the food and drink portions a child is receiving.
So how do you determine the correct portions for a child? First, you have to understand the difference between a “portion” and a “serving”. A serving is a specific amount of food that is calibrated to have a certain amount of nutrients and calories. Servings are typically defined by a specific measurement, such as cups, ounces, or tablespoons. A portion is the amount that gets served onto a plate, a bowl, or a cup. Servings typically have recommended amounts a person should have each day.
For example, an individual should have 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. One serving of fruit is half a cup, typically. A serving may also include the serving size listed on a food label. All the nutrition information listed on the label relates to a single serving. However, food products may include more than one serving in a container. For example, a 24oz can of sweet iced tea have a serving size of 8 fluid ounces and the can contains 3 servings. That means if you drink the whole can you are getting 3 times the calories.
So, how do you determine the appropriate servings for a child? First is to realize that smaller bodies need smaller servings. A 4 year old does not need and cannot eat the same amount as a 40 year old.
Using the MyPlate method helps to set up balanced meals with realistic servings. However, you need to use a smaller plate for children. A typical salad plate or children’s character plate is a good size. Make half the plate fruits and vegetables, a quarter of the plate lean protein, and a quarter a whole grain. Another method of determining appropriate servings is the “hand” method. The palm of the child’s hand should be used to determine protein portions, like meat, fish, and beans. A child’s closed fist should be used to determine whole grain portions, like pasta and rice. Use a “half fist” portion each for fruits and vegetables. Milk should be portioned into a small 8oz cup.
Additional portions may be provided using the same technique if your child is still hungry. Remember to let the child determine when they are full so they learn their own hunger cues.
Catherine Page, MEd, RD, LDN, is an outpatient dietitian with Aramark Healthcare and Harrington HealthCare System. To contact her about a referral for a Pediatric Nutrition appointment, call (508) 764-2474.