Everyone seems to think junk food causes weight gain, but really too much of any food can cause excess weight. Your child may eat healthy foods like whole grains, fish and veggies but if portion sizes are too large, it may be a moot point. Healthy eating isn’t just about the type of food but the amount of food as well. It’s also about being active – but right now we’ll focus on portions.
Excessive portion sizes are a big deal in the U.S.
The Nemours Foundation says that most school-age kids need 1,600 to 2,500 calories per day. At puberty, girls and boys need a few more calories a day, unless they’re not active, which many kids aren’t. The USDA notes that a teen who gets less than 30 minutes of exercise a day needs just 2000 calories to maintain a healthy weight.
Calories above and beyond what you need to maintain weight can really add up. For example, research shows that if your child consumes just 100 calories (the equivalent of 8 ounces of a soft drink) above his or her daily calorie requirements it will typically result in a 10-pound weight gain over one year.
Most kids in America are way overdoing it on portion sizes, which leads to excess calories and in turn, excess weight.
Calories that are in some typical kid meals and food items
All the foods or meals below are either items I’ve seen kids eat or stuff that kids themselves have told me they’ve eaten in one sitting:
- A whole bagel with cream cheese + large bowl of cereal and milk + fruit + juice = 975 calories (if you add 3 teaspoons of sugar to the cereal this breakfast is a total of 1,020 calories)
- 10 oreo-type-cookies = 530 calories
- 2 slices of pizza and large soda = 906 calories
- 2 cups spaghetti with white sauce and a salad with 3 tablespoons of ranch = 1047 calories
- 1/2 bag of potato chips = 486 calories
- 6 fish sticks, 2 tablespoons tarter sauce and vegetables topped with Velveeta cheese = 852 calories
- 6 chicken nuggets, 1/2 cup of peas, 15 tator tots = 584 calories
- 2 pancakes with butter and syrup, two pieces of real pork bacon, apple slices, glass of milk = 732 calories
- Lunchables = 340-400+ calories (depending on type)
- 2 cups of grape juice = 308 calories
- An entire quart of chocolate ice cream = 1,144 calories
- Two maple bars = 920 calories
- Package of top ramen + handful of goldfish crackers = 520 calories
- 1 small movie popcorn + medium soda = 1014+ calories
- Croissant (whole, large), 2 scrambled eggs (cooked in butter), whole orange = 452 calories
- 1/2 box of mac n cheese = 615 calories
- PB&J, can of chicken noodle soup, pear slices plus sweetened fruit drink or tea = 757 calories
- 2 bean burritos dipped in 1/2 cup sour cream = 986 calories
What about meals out and about?
- Panda Express kids meal with orange chicken, chow mein, cookie and soda = 840 calories
- Restaurant bacon cheeseburger, fries and soda = 1,600 calories (+ fries dipped in ranch = 1,810)
- Red Robin kids meal pizza with pepperoni, fries on the side and a soda = 981 calories
- Subway kids meal ham sandwich, snack sized bag of chips and a soda = 730 calories (880 with cookie)
- A typical fast food kids meal with a small cheeseburger, small fries and small soda = 860 calories
What about hot school lunches?
In the past, school lunches have been high in calories, and low on nutrients. However, there have been some improvements as of late. Still, school lunches add up calorie-wise. Not because schools are serving huge portions anymore, but because kids are adding on loads of ranch and junk food purchases with their normal lunches -which can pump a typical lunch up to 1,000 calories+.
It’s not all about the type of food
Be aware that I’m not saying ANY of the foods above are evil – okay, I’m not a fan of ramen and no one should ever eat an entire quart of ice cream or half a box of mac n cheese in one sitting. However, what is more important than the type of food your child eats, is that you’re aware of how calories in foods add up due to extreme portion sizes.
There is nothing wrong with eating ice cream, candy or cake or eating at a restaurant once in a while. However, obviously if you eat massive quantities of treats or eat out every night, those calories start to add up.
Example of an unhealthy week
If your child needs about 1,600 calories a day (11,200 per week) and eats 5 small fast food happy meals a week (yes, I’ve met kids who do this) that means your kid is already at 4,300 calories for the week. Add in seven unhealthy sweet and salty snacks (3,534 calories) and just four cans of sodas (582 calories) that leaves only about 397 calories per day allocated to healthy, less calorie dense foods for your child. And keep in mind that most kids eat more than 7 unhealthy snacks and drink way more than four sodas a week.
Even if your child does eat healthy food items, it’s easy to go calorie crazy due to portion sizes. For example, if your child eats a bagel, cereal, juice and fruit for breakfast, he’s already near the top of his calorie requirements for the whole day, leaving just 625 calories to divide up between lunch, dinner, snacks and drinks for the rest of the day.
This is why portion sizes are so important.
Why are kid portions out of control?
The Nemours Foundation points out that portion sizes began to increase in the 1980s and have gotten bigger and bigger ever since. For example bagels 20 years ago were about 3-inches in diameter and 140 calories. But bagels today are huge, often weighing in at a 6-inch diameter and 350 calories. Oddly, not even religion is excluded – check out how The Last Supper has grown.
Theories abound as to why kid-sized meals and portions are so out of control. Some guesses include:
- Restaurant portions have confused people (often restaurants serve double+ portion sizes).
- Ads showing larger portions confuse people.
- Dishes have grown in size. Many studies show that the bigger the plate, the more people eat.
- Food companies and restaurants serve up huge portions so that customers feel like they’re getting more value for their money.
- Food comes in larger packages now, leading people to eat more in one sitting.
- People keep dishes of food on the table, allowing easy access to second and third helpings.
- People confuse serving recommendations with portions.
Don’t confuse servings with portions
In many cases families may confuse servings with portions. It’s no surprise, because healthy eating is very confusing, but this is an area you can work on.
For example, a 12 year old boy who exercise 30 minutes a day needs six servings of grains per day. That doesn’t translate to 6 large bagels though. One mini bagel, 14 whole grain crackers, 1/2 cup of cooked pasta, 3/4 cup cream of wheat and 1 slice of wheat bread equals six grain serving and 534 calories.
6 large bagels actually equals 24 servings of grains and as many as 2,124 calories. See the difference?
Portions vs. serving recommendations matters a lot when planning healthy meals for your child. To see both serving size recommendations and portion size examples, visit ChooseMyPlate. To see other portion and serving size ideas, visit Kaboose, and take a look at their handy, free and printable guides below:
Just because your child likes treats or eats out once in a while doesn’t mean he’ll be overweight or obese. If your child eats huge portions but exercises more than an hour a day, he may still be at a healthy weight. Also, some kids simply burn more calories than others.
However, the portions mentioned above is something to be aware of, especially if you’re already concerned that your child may be at an unhealthy weight.
Also, be aware that huge portions aren’t simply unhealthy because they may cause excess weight gain, they’re also unhealthy because they don’t build healthy habits for life. Your child has the right to know what a healthy plate of food looks like. Aiming for healthy lifestyle choices overall should be the main goal in your family.
Popcorn and mac n’ cheese images by D Sharon Pruitt; fry mountain image by EvelynGiggles