Children’s health: weight management
If you’re a parent, admitting your child is overweight is never going to be easy. Many parents find it difficult to even recognise that their children have issues with their weight. That may be because children are getting heavier at a younger age, so we’re more used to seeing bigger children.
Indeed, according to the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, one in three children in the UK is obese by the time they reach their ninth birthday (i). Statistics published by Public Health England (PHE) confirm some children are developing weight issues as they get older: according to the most recent statistics from the National Child Measurement Programme, while a quarter of children are overweight or obese by the age of four or five, this rises to a third of those aged 10 and 11 (ii).
Yet according to the NHS, children who are a healthy weight tend to be fitter, healthier, better able to learn and more self-confident, and are less likely to have low self-esteem or to be bullied (iii). Not only that, but they’re less likely to develop health problems normally associated with adults such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, pre-diabetes, bone and joint problems and breathing difficulties (ii), not to mention having a lower risk of ill health and being overweight when they grow up.
These days, children in reception (4 - 5-year-olds) and year 6 (10 -11-year-olds) are weighed and measured at school as part of the National Child Measurement Programme. Allowing your child to take part means not only will you find out how healthy their weight is, but if they’re overweight you could also get support from your local NHS.
Who is most at risk for childhood obesity?
PHE has identified a number of risk factors that may affect a child’s risk of becoming overweight or obese as they get older in terms of the environments they grow up in.
One of these is their parents’ weight. For instance, children who live in a family where at least one parents or carer is obese are more at risk of becoming obese themselves. PHE also suggests there’s evidence of a significant relationship between obesity in mothers and babies who are born above a normal birth weight range and the development of childhood as well as adult obesity (ii).
This then becomes a vicious circle, since children with one or more parents who are living with obesity are more likely to be obese when they grow up – and that can also increase their own children’s risk of putting on too much weight.
However risk factors aside, perhaps unsurprisingly PHE suggests that poor diet and low levels of physical activity are the two main causes of children becoming overweight and obese.
How do you maintain a child's healthy weight?
An essential part of maintaining healthy weight in children – or helping them to lose weight if they’re heavier than they should be for their age and size – a balanced diet is just as important for kids as it is for adults. Yet this is something that’s not always easy to achieve, thanks to the range of less-healthy foods that are marketed at children these days. Setting a good example yourself is a good place to start, as your child will be influenced by what you eat yourself as well as what’s readily available in your kitchen. Try choosing healthier options rather than high-calorie foods when you’re in the supermarket, for instance.
The effects of sugar
Sugar is a particular problem where children’s diets are concerned. According to PHE, children are currently eating more than their recommended daily amount of sugar, which is a contributing factor to excess weight gain (ii). Eating too much sugar can also lead to tooth decay – according to the National Dental Public Health Team at PHE, children who are overweight or obese are also more likely to have tooth decay than those of a healthy weight.
Healthy eating for children (and adults too) means having the following every day:
Five portions of fruit and vegetables (though remember a portion for a child is typically smaller than that for an adult – see below for more details). If they’re getting plenty of fruit and veg in their diet, then they’re also eating good amounts of vitamins, minerals and fibre.
According to the NHS, the most recent statistics suggest only 18 per cent of children aged between five and 15 eat the recommended five or more portions of fruit and veg a day, and just over half eat fewer than three portions a day (iv).
Plenty of starchy carbohydrates – these include pasta, rice, potatoes, bread, porridge and other cereals. These can help keep your child’s energy levels topped up.
Some protein (think lean meat, fish, pulses, beans, eggs and other alternative vegetarian or vegan proteins).
Some milk and dairy foods so that they get plenty of calcium (other foods that contain calcium include soya foods, bread, broccoli and cabbage).
Children can still have small amounts of foods that are high in fat and/or sugar as treats – chocolate, sweets or cake, for instance – but they should only have them occasionally and as part of an otherwise healthy balanced diet.
What is the correct portion sizes for my children?
While there are well-established guidelines on how much food is in a portion for adults (see the Eatwell Guide for details), there’s little official guidance on what portion sizes should be for children. What we do know, however, is that children need smaller portions than adults, though the NHS suggests it’s up to parents to use their own judgement as to how much food their children need (iii).
If you’re in any doubt, however, it’s a good idea to start by serving them portions on the smaller size and letting your child ask for more if they’re still hungry. That’s because feeding your child adult-sized portions on a regular basis could encourage them to develop an overeating habit, which could make them gain too much weight. Also try not to encourage your child to eat everything on their plate – instead, let them finish when they’ve had enough.
Daily calorie requirements
If you need more specific information and you’re happy to calculate the number of calories in food, the most recent advice from the UK’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition suggests the average daily calorie requirements for children are as follows (v):
|Age||Calories (Boys)||Calories (Girls)|
How often should my child be active?
Most of us realise exercise is important for our children to keep them healthy not just while they’re growing up but also during adulthood. It’s also important for their weight, with PHE confirming that physical activity can help children and young people to achieve and maintain a healthier weight. However Sport England figures show that only 47 per cent of children and young people get the recommended average of 60 minutes or more of physical activity per day (vi).
The UK’s Chief Medical Officers recommend physical activity should be encouraged from birth onwards. How much exercise your child needs, however, depends on how old they are (vii):
Under fives: Children who can walk by themselves without any help should be active every day for at least 180 minutes spread throughout the day, either indoors or outdoors.
From five to 18: Children and young people over the age of five are recommended to do at least 60 minutes of aerobic activity every day, including moderate-intensity activities.
Being active for at least 60 minutes a day improves your child’s health plus it makes it easier for them to maintain a healthy weight. Other benefits include improved concentration and learning, better co-ordination, improved confidence and social skills, better sleep and stronger bones and muscles.
Types of activities ideal for children and young people include:
Moderate-intensity activities: These make your child work hard enough to feel warmer, breathe harder and their hearts to beat a bit faster (though they should still be able to carry on a conversation). Playing playground games, brisk walking or riding a bike are all good examples. If it’s practical you could walk your child to school instead of taking them in the car. This is a good way for children to meet part of their recommended amount of daily physical activity. However safety should always be a priority, so work out the safest route before you start. For more tips and advice download the family walk-to-school kit from the charity Living Streets.
Vigorous-intensity activities: Activities such as fast running, swimming and playing football make children breathe much harder and faster while increasing their heart rate. If they’re exercising vigorously, they shouldn’t be able to carry on a conversation easily.
Muscle and bone strengthening activities: These involve using body weight or working against resistance, such as skipping, hopping, gymnastics, tennis or swinging on playground equipment.
Experts advise all children and young people should limit the amount of time they spend sitting each day too, which means reducing the time they spend watching TV, using their computer or playing computer games (iii).
Nutritional support for kids
Whether your child’s weight is healthy or not there’s a chance they could be missing out on essential vitamins, especially if they don’t eat a varied diet (if they are a fussy eater, for instance). This is why the Department of Health suggests all children from the age of six months to five years take supplements every day that contain vitamins A, C and D. If you’re on benefits and qualify for the Healthy Start scheme , you may be entitled to free vitamins for your child.
There are also several multivitamin and mineral supplements you can buy that are formulated especially for children. Giving your child a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement may help make sure they are getting all the major nutrients their growing body needs.
Look for a supplement that includes the right level of vitamin D, as this helps support their bone and muscle health. A daily vitamin D supplement is recommended for all children (viii):
PHE experts say that if your child is aged one to four years old they should have a daily 10mcg vitamin D supplement
Babies under a year old need a daily 8.5 - 10mcg vitamin D supplement (though if they have more than 500ml of infant formula a day, they don’t need any additional vitamin D).
If you’re looking for a multivitamin supplement for your child, choose one that’s formulated for their age group. Some children’s multivitamins are also easier for them to take, including sugar-free chewable products and tablets that dissolve in water to make a fizzy drink.
Things can be difficult if your child is heavier than they should be, not just for them but for you too. But following healthy lifestyle guidelines should soon see their weight get back to normal – it may make you healthier too. For more information about children’s health as well as a wide variety of other health subjects, visit our health library.
Available online: https://www.rcpch.ac.uk/key-topics/nutrition-obesity
Available online: https://www.rcpch.ac.uk/key-topics/nutrition-obesity
Available online: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/statistics-on-obesity-physical-activity-and-diet/statistics-on-obesity-physical-activity-and-diet-england-2019/part-6-diet
Available online: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/phe-publishes-new-advice-on-vitamin-d
Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.
Keri Filtness has worked in the Nutrition Industry for 19 years. She is regularly called upon for her professional comments on health and nutrition related news. Her opinions have been featured by BBC3, Prima, Vitality, The Mirror, Woman’s Own and Cycling Weekly, amongst others. She has also worked one to one with journalists, analysing their diets and health concerns and recommending changes and additions, where appropriate.