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
Adults who are overweight or obese are at greater risk for heart disease, heart failure,
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.
Serving sizes. 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.
Recommended amounts. 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
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:
Use one of the top sections for protein.
Use the other top section for starch, preferably a whole grain.
Fill the bottom two sections with veggies (or fruit and veggies).
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
Here are some tips:
Serve food on smaller plates so meals look larger. A sandwich on a dinner plate
looks lost; on an appetizer plate it looks downright hefty.
When cooking large batches or storing leftovers, separate them into smaller portions
before you put them in the fridge or freezer. That way, when your family reaches in,
they'll automatically grab a portion that makes sense.
Don't let kids eat out of bags or containers. Serve individual portions and make
it a rule to eat in the kitchen.
Dish out meals at the counter and avoid bringing the whole pot to the table. Not
keeping the food at arm's length can make your family think twice about reaching for
seconds. If they do want seconds, offer more veggies or salads.
Aim for three scheduled healthful meals and one or two healthy
snacks throughout the day. Skipping a meal can lead to overeating at the next
Add more salads and fruit to your family's diet, especially at the start of a
meal, which can help control hunger and give a sense of fullness while controlling
Try not to rush through meals. Go slowly and give everyone a chance to feel full
before serving more. Family sit-down meals also provide valuable opportunities to
reconnect with one another.
Don't insist that kids clean their plates. Encourage them to stop eating when
they feel full.
When eating out, share meals, order an appetizer as a main dish, or pack up half
to take home before you begin to eat. When getting take out, order fewer meals and
serve family style. At fast food restaurants, choose kids meals with healthy options
(milk, fruit, or carrots).
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:
A closed fist is about a cup — and a cup is the amount experts recommend
for a portion of pasta, rice, cereal, vegetables, and fruit.
A meat portion should be about as big as your palm.
Limit the amount of added fats (like butter, mayo, or salad dressing) to the size
of the top of your thumb.
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
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.