Kids and Calories
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
LifeTime WeightLoss in Anika DeCoster, Nutrition, calorie balance, kids

Written by: Anika Christ, RD, CISSN, CPT - Life Time Fitness

More than ever, parents are asking how many calories their child needs to eat on a daily basis.  Perhaps this question has become more common due to the drastic increase of weight and body fat of our childhood population, but is calorie monitoring beneficial for children or more detrimental to their health?  Parents need to understand why this may not be the best way to influence their child’s health and what factors to focus on instead. 

Trends in Calorie Counting

As a nation, we’ve become focused on this food value. So focused, we tend to determine a food’s healthiness solely on this number.  The majority of weight loss programs educate adults to primarily focus on controlling calories, so it shouldn’t surprise us that parents want a magic number to monitor for their children each day.

The school lunch program has also joined the trend in cutting calories to promote optimal body weight in children. The latest recommendations, due to take effect this fall, establish a calorie maximum for each lunch served. While reducing items like fats and whole milk, there is an attendant risk this plan may cut the important nutrients needed for child growth. 

It’s not news that food companies spend a high amount of money on marketing to children. Many of the snack or junk foods now boast a calorie number on the front of their labels to influence parents to purchase that product. Keeping low-calorie junk food in your pantry is not the same as healthy eating and parents should not identify quality and nutritional value based on one particular number.

Is It Really about the Calories?

Often enough, health professionals even emphasize the importance of providing children with enough calories to grow, but it’s important for parents to understand that children grow because they secrete hormones that make them do so.  They tend to consume more calories than they expend because they are growing.  It’s more important to focus on quality nutrients to promote healthy hormone production and growth (vitamins, minerals, protein) rather than focusing just on calories. 

Children are typically more in tune with their hunger hormones as well when compared to adults.  At birth, we have a natural hunger-satiety mechanism that tells us when we are full or hungry.  This mechanism tends to go away once we reach adulthood or can prematurely go away in childhood if the child has learned negative eating behaviors. Because typical diets are high in processed foods that require less chewing and provide low satiation, children today have a hard time knowing when they are hungry or full. 

Watch What You Say

Parents can choose to send positive or negative messages when it comes to eating healthy at home.  Children absolutely need to learn by example how to live a healthy lifestyle. With that, what comes out of your mouth should be both positive and constructive for the family.  And children’s perception of health food is definitely shaped by parents. If you are constantly talking about needing to lose weight or watching your calories, your children will likely adopt the same kind of thinking. If you’re trying to educate your child about healthy foods, you might want to put calorie considerations further down the list of priorities.   

We should eat romaine lettuce and other vegetables because they contain fiber and vitamins and minerals and not just because they are low in calories.  We should avoid regular consumption of soda because it’s filled with sugar and lacks essential nutrients — not just because it adds an extra 150 calories to your bottom line.


It’s critically important to give your children the right messages about food and weight and make sure you practice what you are preaching. Try a healthier approach of providing the right nutrient-rich foods at each meal and teaching your child the difference between everyday foods the occasional treats. Take time to sit and focus on eating as a family. If parents establish a healthy environment toward food, a child will develop a positive relationship with food that doesn’t require a fixation on calories.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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