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Learning How Much to Eat

How do we learn how much food to put on our plates?

That's a question Jennie Fisher, associate professor of public health and researcher at Temple University's Center for Obesity Research and Education, has been picking away at for years.

Fisher's work is aimed at decoding the array of factors in the eating environment, from visual cues such as the size of a serving vessel to social influences around the kitchen table and practicalities such as the size of the serving spoon, that may influence decisions about how much food to put on your plate.

In Fisher's latest study, presented at the annual meeting of the Obesity Society earlier this month, 61 children ages 5 and 6 were allowed to help themselves to their own servings of pasta using either a teaspoon or a tablespoon. Sometimes they took their food from a container holding an age-appropriate amount of food; other times the amount of food in the serving vessel was doubled.

On average, kids took 60 percent more food when presented with the container holding more food. Fisher figures that when kids are given a container of food, they assume someone's decided that's the right amount of food for them to take.

But simply having more food available didn't consistently translate to eating more: Only those kids who actually took more ate more.

The size of the serving spoon didn't seem to matter much at all, though kids took larger, but not more numerous, spoonfuls when presented with the larger amount of food.

The study also found that children whose mothers fell into the category of "demanding yet responsive to the child" served themselves less food than those whose moms were either "indulgent" or "demanding and not very responsive," which Fisher says suggests that being warm but a bit demanding -- or authoritative, or structured -- may be a good thing when it comes to helping children establish healthy eating habits.

This study takes its place alongside earlier research showing that kids who are allowed to serve their own food take smaller portions than they would typically be served and ate 25 percent less, and that kids tend to eat more when the portions on their plates have been doubled, Fisher told me.

Fisher says more work needs to be done before she can make any solid recommendations to parents for steering kids toward choosing appropriate serving sizes. "I don't know that we're at the point that gives parents a firm idea about how to proceed," she says.

But her research does at least arm us with heightened awareness. As Fisher says, it draws attention to "how simple things in the food environment that we might not think about might influence eating."

How do you make choices about how much food to plunk on your plate? Does a bigger plate spell bigger portions? Do you serve onto plates in the kitchen or put everything on the table for your family to serve themselves? And are you conscious of helping your kids figure out how much food is the right amount for them to take and to eat?

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By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  October 21, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness  
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