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Categories > Children’s Health > Nutrition and weight management

A healthy head start

No doubt you’ve been hearing the latest news warning about the declining fitness of American kids. More and more children are growing up fat and out of shape, setting themselves up for a lifetime of health problems—like heart disease and diabetes—that may strike before they attend their senior prom. Our fast-food and no-move lifestyle has created a childhood culture where one in six kids is overweight, 16 percent of teens have high cholesterol and more than three hours a day is spent plopped in front of the TV.

To steer families toward a healthier lifestyle and help kids grow and develop normally, the U.S. government in 2005 released dietary guidelines for Americans. The guidelines include recommended amounts of calories, nutrients and exercise kids ages 2 and up should be getting every day.

Keeping weight gain in check

Because kids are still growing, their energy, or calorie, needs will continue to increase, depending on their activity level, according to Oktibbeha County Hospital Clinical Dietitian Nicky Yeatman, RD, LD. “For example, a moderately active 3-year-old may need between 1,000 and 1,400 calories a day; however, by age 15, the same child may need between 2,000 and 2,800 calories,” she says, noting that sedentary children will need fewer calories. “Many kids consume far too many calories but often fall short when it comes to getting key nutrients like calcium, potassium, fiber, magnesium and vitamin E.”

Making healthful changes

The key, Yeatman says, is to select foods that pack more nutritional punch calorie for calorie, and make daily physical activity part of your family’s lifestyle. “Encourage foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products. Limit foods high in sugar, sodium, fat and trans fat,” she says, suggesting that parents aim for the recommendations at right.

Low-fat dairy foods

Kids should eat two to three cups a day of fat-free or low-fat milk or equivalent products such as yogurt and cheese, according to Yeatman. “Children younger than age 2, however, should have the full-fat version of dairy products,“ she says.

Why? The calcium in dairy foods is vital to bone building and growth.

How to get them

  • Stock the refrigerator with low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese or try calcium-enriched soy- and rice-based drinks.
  • Offer kids one serving of calcium-fortified fruit juice a day.
  • Serve calcium-rich broccoli, kale, mustard greens, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, great northern beans, black beans, navy beans and baked beans.

Fruits and vegetables

Kids should eat two cups of fruit and 2 ½ cups of vegetables a day, according to Yeatman.

Why? Fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of vitamins A and C, folate, potassium and fiber and are low in calories.

How to get them

  • Choose whole fruits (fresh, frozen, canned or dried) instead of fruit juice, which is high in sugar and low in nutrients.
  • Enjoy a variety of dark green, orange and starchy vegetables, such as spinach, kale, broccoli, peppers, carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squash, oranges and cantaloupe. The same advice goes for legumes—try cooked dry beans, peas and lentils.
  • Make fruit and vegetables convenience foods. Keep a bowl of fresh fruit on your kitchen table and a container of cut-up veggies or fruit in the refrigerator.
  • Offer fruit or vegetables at every meal. Top breakfast cereal with a scoop of berries; add slices of tomato, carrot or cucumber to sandwiches; prepare a vegetable side dish and a salad for dinner.


Kids should get at least one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity on most, if not all, days of the week, according to OCH Wellness Connection Fitness Instructor Elaine Schimpf, who holds degrees in exercise physiology and health education and is certified by the American College of Sports Medicine.

Why? Exercise burns calories, promotes a healthy body weight, boosts mental wellness and helps build stronger bones. “Physical activity is the only way to achieve cardiovascular conditioning, build muscle strength and maintain and improve flexibility and coordination,” Schimpf says.

How to get it

“Play! Send the kids outdoors as much as possible. Better yet, join them,” she says and suggests these strategies:

  • Make evening walks or bike rides a family custom.
  • Enjoy outings that include walking, such as trips to the zoo or park or a game of miniature golf.
  • Give gifts that promote activity like in-line skates, jump ropes, scooters and sports equipment.
  • Include kids in activities like dog walking, car washing and lawn care.
  • Limit screen time, including TV, video games or computer time, to no more than two hours a day.

Whole grains

Kids should get at least half of their grain servings—breads, crackers, pasta and rice—from whole-grain foods, Yeatman says.

Why? Whole-grain foods naturally contain more fiber, vitamins, antioxidants and phytoestrogens—nutrients typically lost when grains are refined.

How to get them

  • Look for foods with the words “whole“ or “whole grain“ before the grain’s name on the label’s ingredient list. The whole grain should be listed as the first ingredient.
  • Buy whole-grain breakfast cereals or oatmeal.
  • Make sandwiches on whole-grain bread, rolls or tortillas.
  • Provide snacks of whole-grain crackers, pretzels or popcorn.
  • Instead of potatoes, cook whole-wheat pasta and noodles, brown or wild rice and explore other grains like barley, buckwheat, triticale, millet and quinoa.


Kids should get their total fat intake from 25 percent to 35 percent of their total calories, Yeatman says. “For children ages 2 to 3, aim for the higher end of the range, and most fats consumed should come from sources of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, such as fish, nuts and vegetable oils,” she says, adding a caution to limit foods high in saturated fat and steer clear of foods containing trans fats.

Why? Children’s bodies need fats and essential fatty acids to supply energy and help the body absorb vitamins A, D, E and K and carotenoids. But saturated fats and trans fats raise cholesterol and clog arteries.

How to get them

  • Choose poultry (remove skin) and lean cuts of meat.
  • Enjoy fish and shellfish often, but children (and women of childbearing age, including teens) should avoid certain types of fish high in mercury like shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish. Limit tuna to 6 ounces a week.
  • Bake, broil, roast or grill meat, fish and poultry instead of frying or sautéing in butter.
  • Use soft margarine with no trans fats in place of butter and choose cooking oils like olive and canola.