Bigger portions lead to preschoolers eating more over time

April 12, 2019

Science Daily/Penn State

Preschoolers may not be as good at resisting large portions of everyday foods as was previously thought, according to Penn State researchers.


In a study, the researchers examined whether children between the ages of three and five were susceptible to the portion size effect -- the tendency of people to eat more when larger portions are served.


They found that when served larger portions of typical meals or snacks, the children consumed more food, both by weight and calories.


Alissa Smethers, a doctoral student in nutritional sciences, said the findings -- recently published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition -- suggest that caregivers should pay close attention to not just the amount of food they serve but also the variety of food.


"It's hard to define portions that are appropriate for all preschoolers, since their calorie requirements vary due to differences in height, weight and activity level," Smethers said. "But it's a good idea to look at the proportions of different foods you're serving, with fruits and vegetables filling up half the plate and with smaller portions of more calorie-dense foods, as recommended in the USDA MyPlate nutrition guide."


Barbara Rolls, Helen A. Guthrie Chair and director of the Laboratory for the Study of Human Ingestive Behavior at Penn State, added that the results also suggest that the portion-size effect can be used strategically by caregivers to help children eat more fruits and vegetables.


"The positive side is that you can use the portion size effect strategically, for example by serving larger portions of fruits and vegetables to increase their consumption," Rolls said. "You can also serve them at the start of the meal or on their own as snacks. When there are no other foods competing with them, kids may be more likely to eat them."


Smethers said that while it was known that adults are likely to eat more when served larger portions of food over time, it was thought by some researchers that young children can sense how many calories from food they need and adjust their eating habits accordingly, a process called "self-regulation."


Previous studies have tested this theory by looking at children's eating habits at one meal or over a single day. But Smethers said it may take longer -- up to three to four days -- for self-regulation to kick in, and so she and the other researchers wanted to study the portion size effect in children across a full five days.


The researchers recruited 46 children between the ages of three and five from childcare centers at the University Park campus for the five-day study. All meals and snacks were provided for the children, who during one five-day period received baseline-sized portions -- based on Child and Adult Care Food Program requirements -- and during another period had portions that were increased in size by 50 percent.


"In the larger portion meals, we wanted to serve portion sizes that the children might encounter in their everyday lives," Smethers said. "For example, instead of getting four pieces of chicken nuggets, they would get six, for a 50 percent increase."


During both five-day periods, the children were allowed to eat as much or as little of their meals or snacks as they wanted. After the children were done eating, the leftover foods were weighed to measure how much each child consumed.


Additionally, each child wore an accelerometer throughout each five-day period to measure their activity levels, and the researchers measured their height and weight.


After analyzing the data, the researchers found that serving larger portions led to the children eating 16 percent more food than when served the smaller portions, leading to an extra 18 percent of calories.


"If preschoolers did have the ability to self-regulate their calorie intake, they should have sensed that they were getting extra over the five days and started eating less," Rolls said. "But we didn't see any evidence of that."


The researchers also found that children with higher BMI percentiles for their age were more likely to be influenced by larger portions. Additionally, the portion size effect seemed stronger in children with overweight or obesity than for children without.


"We found that while the portion size effect is powerful overall, some children seemed to be more susceptible to the effect than others," Smethers said. "Children who were rated by their parents as more responsive to food when it's in front of them were also affected more by portion size, while children who were rated as paying attention to whether or not they were actually hungry were less affected by portion size."

Visualization strategies may backfire on consumers pursuing health goals

April 4, 2019

Science Daily/Oregon State University

Using visualization as motivation is a common technique for achieving goals, but consumers who are pursuing health goals such as eating healthy or losing weight should use caution when using perspective-based visualizations, a new study has found.


Adopting a third-person perspective, by viewing one's self through an observer's eyes, may backfire when the goal is not a core part of the person's identity, said Jason Stornelli, an assistant professor of marketing in the College of Business at Oregon State University and one of the study's authors.


"Third-person perspectives may be harmful, because they can discourage goal-consistent intentions and behavior when the goal is not a major part of how a person thinks about themselves," Stornelli said.


The findings contrast with past research that indicated that people who used third-person perspectives were more likely to succeed in achieving goals, suggesting the use of third-person perspectives for goal achievement is nuanced.


The results were published recently in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. Co-authors are Beatriz Pereira of Iowa State University and Richard J. Vann of Penn State Behrend.


Stornelli's research interests include the role of self-regulation in consumer decision-making. In particular, he investigates how consumers pursue goals and how emotions influence decision-making.


"Companies and organizations are invested in helping people to achieve their goals. For example, consider a company that sells weight loss programs or stakeholders such as insurers, employers and governments," Stornelli said. "All may benefit when consumers make healthier choices. There are a lot of opportunities for organizations and consumers to achieve win-win outcomes with regard to helping people achieve goals."


Stornelli and his colleagues' objective for this study was to better understand the best ways to use visualization as a tool for goal-setting and achievement.


The researchers conducted three experiments investigating how health goals are influenced by the use of first- and third-person perspectives and by goal centrality -- how closely aligned a goal is to a person's core identity.


They found that when health goals are peripheral to a person's self-concept, using a third-person perspective undermines goal-consistent choices and negatively influences goal intentions.


In one experiment, participants considered the goal of reducing sugar in their diet and imagined buying snacks from a first-person or third-person perspective. People who considered the goal to be a relatively minor part of their identity were later more likely to choose a higher-sugar snack to take home if they adopted a third-person perspective.


In another experiment, the researchers found that taking a third-person perspective reduced the likelihood that people adopted an implemental mindset. In other words, they thought less about the steps and plans needed to reach the goal, which encouraged more negative self-conscious emotions and negatively influenced future intentions to pursue the goal when it played a relatively peripheral role in defining their identity.


Using third-person visualization has worked well in past research for objectives like voting in an upcoming election or reaching an academic goal, where there are concrete steps to take and a clear completion point. Health goals often require more involved behavioral change and people must continually maintain their effort. Future research might explore the effectiveness of visualization strategies for a range of goal types.


"It seems important to think about whether the tool is appropriate for the context of the goal at hand," Stornelli said.


The researchers suggested that the way a person implements a third-person perspective may also help them derive greater benefits and avoid pitfalls. Encouraging connections between the goal and the person's self-concept seems likely to minimize negative effects, Stornelli said. Breaking large health goals down into simpler, smaller goals with clear endpoints may also help.


"We need to look more closely at the features of different kinds of goals and how the context for those goals differs," Stornelli said.

Babies of overweight mothers may risk developing self-regulation problems

October 10, 2018

Science Daily/Springer

A mother's weight during early pregnancy may affect how well her baby is able to self-regulate during its first months and years of life. This is according to a study of more than 3100 Finnish women.


Previous research has found that one in every five infants struggles to self-regulate in the first year of life. This means that these babies may cry excessively, have problems feeding or difficulties falling asleep unless soothed by a caregiver. As they grow older, such children often show behavioural and neurodevelopmental problems such as hyperactivity or difficulties concentrating, as well as having poorer muscle function. Some have lower IQs or are placed on the autism spectrum.


The aim of this study was to find out whether a mother's weight during early pregnancy influences her child's neurodevelopment. Girchenko and her colleagues drew on data from 3117 women from different Finnish towns who had given birth between 2006 and 2010. All participants were part of the Prediction and Prevention of Pre-eclampsia and Intrauterine Growth Restriction (PREDO) study.


Medical data was gathered about the mothers' weight during the first few months of their pregnancies, and whether they suffered from high blood pressure or gestational diabetes during this period. Up to three months after delivery, the women then answered questions about their babies' ability to regulate and calm themselves. Follow-up assessments of the children's developmental milestones were conducted between 2011 and 2012.


In general, the participants who were overweight or obese tended to be older mothers and to deliver their babies through a caesarean section. They were also less likely to have a tertiary education and quite often decided to stop smoking when they first heard that they were pregnant.


By the age of 17 days, infants of mothers who were overweight were already found to struggle more often with regulatory behaviour problems. In fact, there was a 22 per cent higher chance that overweight or obese mothers would have children with multiple self-regulatory problems. The research team confirmed that weight was the significant factor, and not whether a mother suffered from high blood pressure or gestational diabetes.


"Our findings show that regulatory behavior problems in infancy have prenatal origins that can be attributed at least partially to mothers being overweight or obesity," explains Girchenko. "We suggest that the prevention of weight problems in women of childbearing age may benefit their later offspring and could reduce the burden of regulatory problems in infancy and prevent their long-term neurodevelopmental consequences."

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