Amy Conn-gutierrez  /  AP
Ricardo Hernandez, a first-grader, uses two potatoes to determine correct portion sizes April 10 at Britain Elementary in Irving, Texas. Using yo-yos, potatoes and other props, Texas teachers are putting to use an unusual approach to nutritional education.
updated 4/17/2006 6:58:11 PM ET 2006-04-17T22:58:11

With a tennis ball and a yo-yo as props, first-grade teacher Kristy Brooks helped her class understand what a healthy portion of potato looks like.

“About how many yo-yos do you think would fit on this potato?” she asked, and the children quickly measured the large brown baking potatoes on their desks against a yo-yo.

Brooks — dressed as lettuce for her school’s “nutrition week” — is using such tips from a new state booklet on food portions to help her make the point. About 1.5 million students in grades 1-4 will get the booklets this spring in Texas’ attempt to help them sort out proper portion size in a world of super-sized everything.

'You've got to start young'
“To get a change in lifestyle, you’ve got to start young,” said Beverly Boyd, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Agriculture, which has been trying to make school lunches healthier.

More than twice as many children and almost three times as many teens are overweight now compared to 1980, according to the American Heart Association. Government figures suggest more than a third of American children are overweight.

Being fat increases the risk for health problems including diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, high cholesterol and future heart disease.

Brooks explained to her class that a half-cup of vegetables or vegetable juice is equal to one vegetable serving, about the size of a yo-yo. And a cup of leafy green vegetables is equal to one serving, about the size of a tennis ball.

Teaching young children portion sizes should be eye-opening for them, said Marion Nestle, a professor nutrition at New York University.

“The kids are going to go home and say, 'You just served me five portions,'" said Nestle, author of the upcoming book “What to Eat.”

Comparisons to everyday objects should help drive the point home better than referring to a “serving,” said Alice Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University.

'People will be really shocked'
“I think people will be really shocked when they see this because people are used to eating portions that are so much bigger,” Nestle said.

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At Lee Britain Elementary School where Brooks teaches, administrators made the booklet part of an entire week of nutritional education.

“I don’t think portions and serving size have ever been explained to them,” said Brooks, in her green dress and tissue headdress for her role as lettuce.

The kids tested out their new knowledge with snacks of sweet potatoes and carrots with salad dressing. Brooks told the students that 12 baby carrots count for two servings from the vegetable group, a tip that can be found in the booklet, available in both English and Spanish.

Students are often surprised to learn correct portions, said Janie Peek who works for the Texas Cooperative Extension service in West Texas and has used the booklets at schools she’s visited in her region.

They’ll often discover, for instance, that they are eating two to three times the intended serving size for breakfast cereal, she said.

Elizabeth Schaub, dietitian and diabetes educator with Baylor Regional Medical Center in the Dallas suburb of Plano, says “there definitely is portion distortion.”

“I spend 90 percent of my day talking about portions,” said Schaub, who said that in the last 20 years food servings have grown enormously.

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