Dear Mr. Dad: This may seem like a very basic question, but what can I do to help my overweight 13-year-old twin daughters lose weight? It’s not that they eat a lot of junk food—they actually eat pretty well. The problem is that they consume huge portions and then have seconds and thirds. I’ve talked to them about how many calories and how much fat are in each serving, but they don’t seem to be paying any attention. Is there some other way I can get them to see what they’re doing?
As you’ve discovered, despite all the talk about the “epidemic of obesity” and the constant barrage of information about calories and fat, most people have no clue how much of either they should be eating, and, more important, how much is too much.
Just so you know, depending on their age and how active they are, teen girls and adult women need 1,600-2,200 calories per day; teen boys and adult men should get 1,800-3,100 per day. But rather than talk about fat and calories, I suggest you do two other things, both of which will help your daughters eat less.
First, un-supersize everything. Brian Wansink and his colleagues at Cornell University just did a study and found that we eat 92% of what’s on our plate. In theory, that’s not a bad thing. The problem is that that percentage stays the same regardless of the size of the plate. A number of studies have found that people eat more when they’re serving themselves (or being served) from larger serving containers, putting that food onto large plates or bowls, or eating with large utensils. The larger those items, the more we eat. As Wansink puts it, “If you put it on your plate, it’s going in your stomach.”
Getting smaller platters, plates, and silverware will definitely help your daughters. But it won’t be easy. Over the last 20 years, “normal” serving sizes have ballooned. For example, back then, a typical bagel was about three inches in diameter, today it’s six inches; a blueberry muffin weighed about 1.5 ounces, today it’s four ounces; an order of fries at a fast food restaurant weighed 2.4 ounces, today it’s 6.9 ounces.
The same thing is happening in our homes. Twenty years ago, the average dinner plate was about 10 inches in diameter; today it’s about 12. That may not sound like much, but it’s actually an increase of 44 percent.
Second, stop talking about fat and calories. Instead, put things in terms of how much exercise you’d have to do to burn off what you just ate. For example, if your daughters take a second helping of spaghetti and meatballs, they’ll have to spend an hour running at a 9-minute-mile pace to burn that off. Swimming backstroke for 80 minutes would offset an order of fries. And an hour of Zumba would take care of that piece of cheesecake.
This approach can be extremely successful. A few years ago, researchers at the University of North Carolina randomly gave 800 people one of four nearly identical menus. One menu had just the names of the food; one had the food plus calorie info; one had calories plus the number of minutes the customer would have to walk to burn off the food; and the last had calories plus how far the customer would have to walk to burn those calories. The differences were eye-opening.
As you might expect, the people with the regular menu ordered the most food. Those with calorie info ordered about five percent less. But those with the minutes-of-walking and miles-of-walking information ordered 15-20 percent less.
Photo credit: unsplash.com/Ali Inay