Healthy Cooking


assorted fruit




Tips for Underweight Children

In a country where many people suffer from obesity, it is tough to find information on how to help your kids gain weight. Here are some tips I've found to help my children and other family members put on weight. Please note that if your children are underweight you should have them evaluated by a doctor to see if their weight problems could be caused by underlying medical issues.

1. Check with your doctor to see if your child could be underweight due to a food allergy, food intolerance or other medical issue. Celiac disease is one relatively common disorder that can cause nutrient absorption problems and stunted growth. Children diagnosed with Celiac disease have to avoid eating any wheat or other gluten containing foods. A child we know with Celiac disease loses weight almost immediately if he has any gluten containing foods at all.

A friend's child was underweight due to a milk allergy. Dairy allergies are also common problems and another area to consider. Besides having a medical check up, you can also just try different diets for a week and track your child's weight each day. For one week keep your child off gluten products and just see if that helps. Another week try restricting dairy products and see if that results in any weight gain. I have noticed with my children that if they have a lot of dairy products they do tend to lose weight, though interestingly they grow taller. (Having low fat milk each day was a weight loss tip published in a recent magazine article from one of The Biggest Loser winners.) Research studies are conflicting on whether milk helps children lose or gain weight, so trial and error may be the best way to determine what is best for your child.

2. Track how many calories your child eats each day. Children can be underweight for a variety of reasons. Some may not have much of an appetite and may not be taking in enough calories. Another possible reason is that your child may be eating enough food but is not absorbing the foods he or she eats. Tracking daily calorie intake, even if just for a few days, can help to narrow down the possible causes for your child's low body weight.

You can keep track of this yourself with a pencil and paper in a notebook, or if you are really serious about tracking your child's calorie intake, you can buy a nutrition software program. The program I bought for my kids was called Nutribase. I bought this program and it was really an eye opener. It became obvious after just using the program for a few days that my kids simply were not taking in enough calories, let alone getting the RDA for all of the important vitamins an minerals. With this program you can enter what your child eats each day and compare the actual values to recommended amounts of calories, fats, protein and most vitamins and minerals based on your child's goal weight and activity level.

3. Zinc deficiency is one possible cause of a lack of appetite. Click here for a list of foods high in zinc. Personally, I think it is better to try to get zinc from your diet rather than taking artificial supplements. Supplements often have unintended side effects.This web site has a list of the symptoms that may be associated with zinc deficiency.

4. Since there are not many books on how to gain weight, I've found it is helpful to read diet books to understand how to lose weight and then do the opposite. Here are some tips for gaining weight gleaned from the book Volumetrics.

The basic premise of this book is that research has shown that people tend to eat the same volume (about five pounds) of food each day, whether that food is high or low in calories. The book contains charts that provide the energy density of a variety of foods. The object of the book is to show people how to lose weight by eating more of the foods with low energy density in order to feel full without going hungry.

For my underweight family members, I try to provide them with some of the foods listed in the book that are low in weight but high in energy density, but still healthy, like nuts and dried fruits. There are many foods in the book like cookies and doughnuts that have high energy densities but only provide empty calories. I try to avoid serving those at home and only focus on foods that are both nutritious as well as energy dense.

Relatively healthy foods with high energy densities:

  • Pasta tossed with with olive or canola oil and shredded cheese. Sometimes I also use spreadable butter products made with canola oil. This keeps up the calories but the canola oil reduces the amount of saturated fat compared to using straight butter. I like to use durum wheat pastas made partly with dried vegetables, such as spinach or tomato, for some added nutrition.

  • Nuts - almonds, pecans, pistachios, peanuts (technically a legume), cashews, etc.

  • Dried fruit - raisins, fruit leathers, and dried bananas are good for weight gain. You can eat a dried plum much quicker than a whole plum but they both have the same amount of calories. Even for older kids, baby foods like banana or banana with strawberries can make a healthy, relatively high calorie snack. I think baby food is helpful for weight gain because the blending and mixing with water make it easier to digest.

  • Higher calories vegetables include peas, corn, potatoes, yams and sweet potatoes. My kids like mashed potatoes made with butter and cream.

According to the Volumetric's authors, water based drinks do not have much effect on appetite, so they caution to avoid high calorie drinks. However using this logic in reverse to gain weight, then it would seem like nutritious high calorie drinks, like fruit and vegetable juices, may be helpful for weight gain.

5. One thing that has helped my kids gain weight is to eat more fat, especially butter and cream cheese.

For breakfast they have:

  • Eggs fried in butter
  • Bagels with cream cheese
  • Bacon

Most people would get fat if they ate like this, but with my kids it seems to be the kind of food they need to simply keep from being underweight.

For snacks they usually have more high calorie, high fat foods such as:

  • Toast with cream cheese or butter
  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
  • Salami
  • Organic corn chips with guacamole or layered taco dip (refried beans, guacamole, sour cream, cheese, salsa)
  • Potato salad with lots of mayonnaise
  • Smoothies made with fruit and full fat coconut milk
  • Assorted nuts
  • Crackers (not whole wheat) with speadable butter

For dinner I make them foods like:

  • Pork chops fried in butter
  • Mashed sweet potatoes made with butter and full fat coconut milk
  • Macaroni and cheese made with butter
  • Salads with lots of dressing

I also include healthy, lower calorie foods along with the above, such as blueberries, carrots, bananas, peas, baked beans, etc. But without the high fat foods listed above my kids just stay really underweight.

One of my kids put on 10 pounds in a couple of weeks simply by eating more often and eating more high fat foods like the ones listed above.

6. According to some weight gain tips from my Ayurvedic (traditional Indian) medicine books, people who are underweight often do better with cooked foods. I think this is because cooking usually makes foods easier to digest. Cooking also helps destroy any bacteria, fungus, or other unwanted life forms that may be on the food. I know that a lot of people say raw foods are easier to digest, but from personal experience I would tend to disagree. Personally I think well cooked foods, especially foods that have been simmered for a long time, likes soups and stews, are easiest to digest.

7. This tip is obvious, but still worth mentioning: try to make reasonably healthy foods your kids really enjoy eating, especially if you have picky eaters. Your kids will probably eat a lot more if what you serve tastes delicious. I bought some books with healthy recipes and snack ideas especially for kids to give me some more menu ideas.

8. Make plenty of foods for each meal. Serve foods buffet style so your child can easily help himself to as many servings as he wants to eat.

9. For dessert try serving fruit with real whipped cream for some extra calories. If your child has a dairy allergy you can use coconut cream instead (available at Amazon if you can't find it your local grocery store).

10. Have healthy snacks easily available so your kids can feed themselves when you busy or not around.

11. For some reason many kids don't mind eating the same foods over and over again, just like they can watch the same movie thirty times. If your children like a certain food, such as macaroni and cheese, and from your diet logs it seems to help them gain weight, then serve it every night of the week along with a variety of other foods.

11. Always plan to have enough food for leftovers at meals. Then if your children have an increased appetite for a given meal, you will have enough food to keep feeding them until they are full. Otherwise, you will have leftovers for healthy snacking.

Resources -

Healthy Weights for Healthy Kids: What Should I Do if My Child Is Underweight?

Good suggestions include: macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, crackers with hummus, barley and beef soup with cornbread, fruit smoothies made with ice cream and more.

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