Summer 2009

It’s the Quality – not Quantity – that Counts!


Do not despair over your children's nutritional shortcomings. The biggest problem most kids have is not lack of nutrients. Instead, it's an overload of calories. That's the advice of Central Texas pediatrician Cam-Ha Nguyen, MD, with Austin Regional Clinic – Anderson Mill.

"Part of our training as parents is a focus on foods," noted Dr. Nguyen. "Parents spend too much energy trying to get children to eat more. Kids won't starve themselves. When they are hungry, they will eat."

Trying to get children to join the clean-plate club is not only a waste of time, it's also helping to turn American kids into the world's heaviest children. Rates of childhood obesity have skyrocketed. Part of the problem lies in our perception of how much food children need.

"Parents get used to how much food children eat as infants and toddlers, when they are growing faster than they will at any other time in their lives," said Dr. Nguyen. By the time grade school rolls around, kids require fewer calories.

For example, a 70-pound child needs an average of 1,800 calories a day. That doesn't mean the child will eat 1,800 calories every day. During a growth spurt, children may eat far more; as growth slows, they may eat far less. Over time, though, their food intake will fall around that number unless adults interfere.

Getting enough vitamins and minerals is easy for most kids. "With so many foods fortified these days, even the pickiest eaters are likely to get all they need," Dr. Nguyen explained. "Most of the nutrients are needed in very tiny amounts. A little bit goes a long way. If it makes you feel better, you can give your child a multivitamin, but it probably isn't necessary."

Preventive Measures

Dr. Nguyen recommends several habits to adopt now that can help you combat future unhealthy weight gain.

  • Limit juice consumption. "One of the biggest contributors to unnecessary calories is drinking too much juice. There is very little there besides a lot of sugar and a little vitamin C. Kids should be drinking water, not juice,” Dr. Nguyen added. “Whole fruit, not fruit juice, should be offered as snacks."
  • Adopt good family eating habits. For parents who are worried about a child's weight, Dr. Nguyen recommends looking at the whole family's eating habits. "If you eat a wide variety of health foods, your kids will eat healthy, too. They may not eat all their vegetables, but over time, they will pick up good food habits."
  • Control time with television and video games. "Limiting your child's access and increasing family time spent in physical activity will encourage a child to get more exercise to burn calories," she said.
  • Don't use dessert as a bribe. "This approach to encourage the child to eat more of the main meal doesn't work. It just makes the main meal look more like hard work,” Dr. Nguyen said. “Serve desserts in small portions so that children do not use the sweet as a replacement for more nutritious foods."

For More Information's online health encyclopedia has more information on healthy eating for children.


Good Health for Kids is produced by Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas.