It's Not Just Baby Fat!

Straight talk on emotional eating and weight control in kids and adults

Two Easy, Painless Things You Can Do to Help Your Child Lose Weight

We eat more than we need but simple changes can reduce unnecessary eating

The concern about childhood obesity has focused largely on improving the content of children’s diets. The goal is to increase consumption of healthy foods like fruits and vegetables while decreasing consumption of calorie-rich junk foods. While these are worthwhile goals, they require the child, or the child’s parent to focus on what to eat or not to eat. Maintaining the consistent discipline to improve food choices can be difficult, and in some situations may be impossible. As the child grows older Mom and Dad have less direct influence over what he or she eats but two simple environmental changes can help.

Drs. Thomas Robinson and Donna Matheson, researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine, have published a chapter in Brownell and Gold’s new book, Food and Addiction (Oxford University Press)in which they describe several simple interventions to reduce overeating in kids. The basic idea is that making these changes in the environment will result in less eating without having to continually monitor your child.

The first intervention is based on the well-established finding that both kids and adults eat more when there is more to eat. Research shows that kids and adults are not very good at remembering how much they ate. Typically after eating too much at a meal, children and adults DON’T compensate by eating less at the next meal. It’s simple, if you serve less, you and your kids will eat less. But how do you serve less without feeling deprived?

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First, replace short, wide glasses with tall, thin glasses. One study found that teenagers drank an average of 74 percent more calories when pouring juice and soft drinks into short, wide glasses. Even college students and bartenders poured 20 percent more when using short, wide glasses rather than tall, thin glasses. How hard would it be to replace your glasses with taller, thinner glasses?

The second intervention uses the same principle applied to plates, bowls and spoons. People underestimate their portion size when the plate in front of them has empty spaces. One study of children and normal weight adults found that they served themselves more cereal when using a larger bowl rather than a smaller bowl. Even when adults were told about this tendency they still served themselves more when using large dishware.

In a six-week pilot study, five families replaced their usual dishes and glasses with smaller dishware and used teaspoons rather than soupspoons. At the end of the study both parents and kids reduced portions by 20-30 percent. There were no reports of increased hunger after meals. When the study was over the families could go back to their larger plates and glasses but they continued to use the smaller dishware.  

These studies show that we tend to eat more than we need, and making simple changes in dishware can reduce unnecessary calories. These changes don’t take a lot of effort and your kids won’t feel deprived, so what do you have to lose? Get some tall, thin glasses, put your dinner plates high up on a shelf  (you can use them when company comes), and use salad plates and small bowls for all your meals.

Edward Abramson, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, the author of It's NOT Just Baby Fat! and Professor Emeritus of Psychology at California State University.

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