Calories and Kids

The diets that kids eat are different from adults. In the U.S., the typical child's diet is high in fat and foods that provide a lot of calories in relation to their nutritional value.
Calories and Kids

Body weight represents the balance between "calories in" and "calories out." "Calories in" come from foods and beverages. "Calories out" include the calories that the body burns to keep its organs and systems working (metabolism), for daily activities, and for growth and development. Increasing Body Mass Index (BMI)-for-age means that "calories in" are greater than "calories out."

Kids Eat Differently
The diets that kids eat are different from adults. In the U.S., the typical child's diet is high in fat, the nutrient that is the most concentrated in calories – each teaspoon of fat contains about 40 to 45 calories (each teaspoon of pure protein or carbohydrate is about 20 calories). Chips, hot dogs, fried chicken, french fries and cookies are just a few of the high-fat foods children eat. Most kids also get extra calories from foods that provide a lot of calories in relation to their nutritional value, including fruit juices, soft drinks and snack foods.

A few simple food choices can improve the diet of today's children. Whole-grain foods contribute fibre, a nutrient that helps keep the intestine healthy and boost feelings of fullness. Water, other non-caloric beverages, and low- or nonfat milk as drinks of choice may help maintain a healthy weight.1 Fruits and vegetables supply nutrients and other healthful compounds and contribute to fullness without a lot of calories. Small amounts of oils like canola oil or olive oil supply vitamin E, an important nutrient.

The Influence of Portion Size
In the U.S., portion size and body weight both have gone up over the past 30 years. Portions in restaurants, fast-food outlets and markets are up to eight times as large as those that are recommended as part of a healthy diet.2 Studies have found that children eat more when they are served larger portions.3 Most children, as well as adults, eat the amount of food that is placed in front of them rather than stopping when they are full. With larger portions comes the risk of eating more calories than the body needs.

Increased portion size in soft drinks is particularly noticeable, with a soft drink serving measuring 16 to 20 ounces, depending on bottle size, compared to 6 to 8 ounces 30 years ago.4 Soft drinks have been linked with weight gain because researchers have found that total calories go up when soft drinks in the diet go up.5 More importantly, reversing the trend can make a difference. A study in the U.K. found that those children who simply cut back on soft drinks lost weight over the course of a year, while the children who did not cut back gained weight.6

view footnotes


Other Science Library Topics


1 Rajeshwari R, Yang SJ, Nicklas TA, Berenson GS. Secular trends in children's sweetened-beverage consumption (1973 to 1994): the Bogalusa Heart Study. J Am Diet Assoc. 2005;105:208-14.

2 Young LR, Nestle M. Expanding portion sizes in the US marketplace: implications for nutrition counseling. J Am Diet Assoc. 2003;103:231-4.

3 Orlet Fisher J, Rolls BJ, Birch LL. Children's bite size and intake of an entree are greater with large portions than with age-appropriate or self-selected portions. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;77:1164-70.

4 Young LR, Nestle M. The contribution of expanding portion sizes to the US obesity epidemic. Am J Public Health. 2002;92:246-9.

5 Harnack L, Stang J, Story M. Soft drink consumption among US children and adolescents: Nutritional consequences. J Am Diet Assoc. 1999;99:436-41.

6 James J, Thomas P, Cavan D, Kerr D. Preventing childhood obesity by reducing consumption of carbonated drinks: cluster randomised controlled trial. BMJ. 2004;328:1237. Epub 2004 Apr 23.