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Does your child need to gain weight?

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The topic of weight in children and teens often focuses on the health risks of being overweight or obese, but there are instances where a child may need to gain weight. However, not all weight gain methods are healthy, so it's crucial to consult with a doctor before taking any action.

What to do if your child seems underweight

It's possible that your child's weight is perfectly healthy, so it's important to check with a doctor before assuming otherwise. One way to determine if your child's weight is healthy is to calculate their body mass index (BMI), which uses their height and weight and is appropriate for children aged 2 and above.

If your child is underweight or losing weight, it may be a sign of an underlying medical or emotional issue. Inform your doctor of your concerns, and they may recommend evaluations to determine the cause. For children under 2 years old, seeking medical advice on weight concerns is particularly crucial, and it's essential to follow the doctor's guidance.

Choosing healthy foods when a child needs to gain weight

If your child is older than 2 and the doctor agrees that gaining weight is a good idea, the best way to approach it is by using healthy foods and healthy habits.

Three ways to help encourage healthy weight gain:

Give your child three meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) and two healthy snacks (mid-morning and mid-afternoon). If your child eats dinner early, you could consider a small snack before bedtime. Try to avoid snacks in between or drinking anything other than some water; you want them to be hungry when you give them food.

Offer healthy high-calorie foods. Think in terms of healthy fats and protein. Some examples are:

  • nuts and nut butters, as well as seeds like pumpkin or sunflower seeds
  • full-fat dairy, such as whole milk, heavy cream, cream cheese, and other cheeses
  • avocados
  • hummus
  • olive oil and other vegetable oils
  • whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread or granola (look for granola sweetened with juice or fruit rather than sugar)
  • meat if your diet includes it

Every time you prepare a meal or snack, think about how you might add some calories to it. For example, you could add some extra oil, butter, or cheese to pasta — or some nut butter on a slice of apple or piece of toast.

Three traps to avoid:

  • Giving your child more sweets or junk food. It’s tempting, as children generally want to eat sweets and junk food, and both have calories. But they aren’t healthy foods, and it’s not a good idea to build a sweets and junk food habit.
  • Giving your child unlimited access to food. This, too, is tempting — after all, you want them to eat! But not only does that make it hard to be sure that what they are eating is healthy, but snacking can make them less hungry when it’s time for an actual meal.
  • Letting your child fill up on milk and other drinks — including nutritional supplement drinks. This, too, makes it less likely that they will eat at mealtime, and they are unlikely to get all the nutrients they need. Don’t give your child nutritional supplements unless your doctor advises you to do so.
  • Be sure you schedule regular check-ins with your doctor to monitor your child’s progress. Hopefully, your child will soon be at a healthier weight that helps them to thrive as they grow.
Caroline Buckee

Caroline Flannigan is an epidemiologist. She is an Associate Professor of Epidemiology and is the Associate Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics.

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