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More on the Plate Means More in the Tummy



We know that in adults, a larger portion size will mean consuming more calories at that meal. We also know that foods that have more calories per serving (are "energy dense") will often do the same.

But is this true for children? In theory, children might eat only the number of calories they actually need, as opposed to being affected by visual cues like the amount of food on their plate.

A team of scientists recently developed a study to test this theory (Am J Clin Nutr 2007; 86(1):174-9). They recruited 53 children of preschool age (5-6 years) and their mothers to participate in a feeding study. The children were initially presented with a standardized meal, the main dish of which being macaroni and cheese. Enough of the main course dish was given to the children that they did not eat all of it, but rather stopped eating when they felt full. The amount, by weight and number of calories, eaten by each child was calculated and recorded as the reference, or standard, meal.

On a second occasion the same meal was served, but the main course (again, macaroni and cheese) was manipulated to contain almost twice as many calories for the same amount of food. Each child stopped eating when he or she felt full, and again the amount of food eaten, by both number of calories and by weight, was recorded.

The third session involved the same macaroni and cheese dish as the first session (not manipulated to have more calories), but this time the children were presented with twice as much on their plate. Again the amount of food and the number of calories eaten was recorded.

The scientists compared the three sessions and found that the children ate one-third more of the main course dish in the third, large-portion session, than in the first, reference session. On the other hand, the children ate about the same weight amount of the more calorie-dense meal than the reference meal.

What this means for you

It's clear that larger portions mean eating more, not just for children, but also for adults. The really interesting finding, though, is that the children ate the same weight of the lower-calorie food as they did of the higher-calorie food. This ties in with what I wrote about last year (Nutrition Bite 06/21/06): that you can decrease the number of calories you eat - and not feel hungry! - by switching to lower fat and lower calorie versions of the foods you love.

First posted: August 1, 2007