There is currently a wide availability of food that from a positive perspective helps follow a varied diet with the necessary nutrients to stay healthy. At the same time, the size of the habitual portions consumed by adults and children have increased.
This increase leads to a higher risk of excess energy intake, which consequently leads to an increased likelihood of overweight and obesity. This phenomenon is called portion distortion, that is, the widespread tendency to consider an amount that deviates from what is established as a standard serving as being a suitable amount.
We must highlight that this phenomenon is observed more in food groups with greater energy density, such as salty snacks, red meat, sweets and confectionery.
On the other hand, from a young age, small children have the innate capacity to adjust their food intake according to their caloric needs. This is known as self-regulation of energy intake. Some parents and child minders overfeed children, and
if this situation becomes habitual, the mechanisms of the self-regulation of energy intake become less efficient and children will eat more than what they need all their life.
In short, we can say that in addition to variety being a very important aspect, we should pay special attention to the size of the portions in order to avoid overeating.
Sometimes, it is difficult for parents to know what the correct amount is and a feeling of anxiety takes over “in case they have not eaten enough…”. In this sense, it is important that parents learn to respect the sense of satiety from an early age and make sure that the size of the portions is the suitable one in every age.
A balanced diet is not only a question of variety and quality, but also of amounts. Therefore, it is important to adjust the portions to the needs of each child.
The current dietary guidelines establish a standard regarding the size of portions, which must be adapted to the energy requirements of each person. Maintaining a healthy weight is a question of balance:
Energy balance: Calories ingested=Calories burnt
Nutritional balance: Nutrients ingested= nutrients used or that cover suitable reserves.
We should not forget:
Monitoring your children's gain in weight and size according to the benchmark is one of the best guides to be sure whether they are consuming an insufficient, suitable or excessive amount of calories.
What are the recommended portions for children in school age?
The child's period of growth and development, age, appetite and level of physical activity can vary the suitable portion size. Energy needs during childhood can vary greatly (from 1250 Kcal/day between one and three years of age to 3000 Kcal/day in adolescent males).
How to instil healthy eating habits
1. Do we know the weight of...?
Firstly, we have to learn and evaluate our capacity to determine the weight of food with enough accuracy.
The following table shows food that are consumed habitually. It involves filling in the “estimated weight” column with the value, in grams, that we think a piece of food weighs without consulting anything. Then, we can check the answer and find out what it really weighs using a scale and entering that information in the “real weight” column. This way you will be able to appreciate the difference between what you think a piece of food weighs and its true weight.
2. How to quantify a serving
In order to adjust our diet to the standards of reference we consider particularly relevant to have clear the difference between a serving and a portion, adjusting the amounts to the recommendations.
Portion is the amount of food that one chooses to eat. It can bigger or smaller; the diner (or child minder) decides the amount to put on the dish.
Serving is the standardised amount of food or drink recommended for consumption. It is the amount established as a reference in food guides.
E.g., An habitual portion can contain several standardised servings.
3. How can we control the size of our habitual portions?
Practical strategies and resources Learning to control the size of the habitual portions and consuming the suitable amounts for each person, taking into account age, gender and physical activity, is a good technique to control the amount of energy consumed. This way, we can
enjoy everything in its right amount.
We will address this aspect by providing families resources and practical strategies to calculate the size of the portions. The weight of home measurements and the ability to estimate the portions of food is extremely useful when designing diets.
- A useful way of calculating the serving is using home measurements. Considering that, in average, a glass holds 200 ml and a mug 250 ml, we can calculate the amount of food that we put on a dish by using these containers as a reference.
- The use of plates, bowls and smaller glasses can help you eat less. The same amount of food served on a large plate seems visually smaller than in a small plate.
- You must remember that the bread accompanying meals also counts in the daily servings of cereals.
- Learn to interpret the labelling. Check the size of the recommended portion/serving and the number of servings in the packed food.
- If you make food for several days, freeze it or store it in one day servings. Don't feel that you have to consume what is in the fridge so it does not spoil.
- Serve a small amount of food on the child's plate. If he is still hungry, add more food.
- Encourage children to eat what they like most slowly to allow enough time for their organism to feel satiated without needing to ask for seconds.
- When you go out to eat….
1. Avoid giving into temptation: Refillable drinks, XXL sizes
2. Be careful at the free buffets
3. Do not try to finish your plate if you are no longer hungry (ask for a container and take the leftovers).
4. Share the dishes among the diners (especially desserts)
It is a fact...
- The average size of portions has increased in recent decades.
- The habitual portions of many different food contain more than one serving.
- People have a distorted vision of what a normal portion is (portion distortion).
Some quick tips...
Which is an easy way to calculate a serving? Some servings are easy to calculate as they are based on well-known home measurements, for example, 1 serving of milk is 1 glass (200ml), 1 serving of fruit is usually 1 unit (two units if they are small, such as tangerines or plums), 1 serving of cooked rice is 3/4 of a cup.
In packed foods the suggested portion is detailed on the product's nutrition facts label. This is why it is important to learn and teach how to read the nutritional labelling.
How to serve children adjusted amounts
If your children eat a lot, you can use a small plate, whereas if they eat little, use a larger dish so they have the sensation of eating less. Allow your children to learn how to serve themselves and to discover and identify the signs of hunger and satiety.
Is your child always hungry? Does he eat a lot? Don't obsess. Think that his needs depend on his physical activity. If he moves a lot, it is normal that he feels hungrier. It is appropriate to adjust the portions according to his activity.
Do your children find it difficult to finish their plate? You may be serving them more than what they need; adjust the portions to their age. Sometimes, children can arrive to a main meal without feeling hungry because they are satiated due to snacking beforehand. Therefore, this snacking must be controlled especially if they are high-caloric foods that are poor in nutrients. However, if during the visit with the paediatrician your child has no weight problems, you should not worry.
Do we have to follow servings accurately? Of course not. They are indicative measurements. The portions specified are references calculated using average needs according to age and gender, but each child is different and the portion must be adapted according to their metabolism, daily physical activity and morphology.
The best guide is to learn to respect your child's feelings of hunger and satiety and that he learns which are the suitable portions on his own.