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.
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."
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010,1
a child’s calorie needs differ with age, activity, and gender, from 1,000 calories per day for a two-year-old to 1,600 for a sedentary 13-year-old girl and 3,200 for an active 16-year-old boy. Actual intake ranges from about 1,500 to 2,400 calories,2
suggesting that “calories in” may exceed “calories out” for some children. Top sources of calories for children include desserts, pizza, soft and energy drinks, and breads,3
foods and beverages that provide a lot of calories in relation to their nutritional value. Additionally, 19% of calories for children and adults come from solid fats in desserts, pizza, full-fat dairy products, and high fat meats and another 16% come from the sugars in beverages and desserts.1
A few simple food choices can improve the diet of today's children. Whole grain foods contribute fiber, 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, and 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.4 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.5 Studies have found that children eat more when they are served larger portions.6
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. The Dietary Guidelines call for eating less, that is, properly sized portions, as a way to reduce calorie intake, along with getting adequate amounts of physical activity, at least 60 minutes daily, to help children balance the calorie equation.
Other Science Library Topics
1 U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010.
2 What We Eat in America, NHANES 2007-2008 Individuals 2 years and over: day 1 dietary intake data.
3 National Cancer Institute. Food sources of energy among U.S. population, 2005-2006. Risk Factor Monitoring and Methods. Control and Population Sciences. National Cancer Institute; 2010.
4 Young LR, Nestle M. Expanding portion sizes in the US marketplace: implications for nutrition counseling. J Am Diet Assoc. 2003;103:231-4.
5 Young LR, Nestle M. The contribution of expanding portion sizes to the US obesity epidemic.
Am J Public Health. 2002;92:246-9.
6 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.