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Is Dieting OK for Kids?

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Everyone has been on a diet. Does that sound strange? Well, it's true. A diet is simply the collection of the foods you regularly eat. But the word "diet" also can mean an attempt to lose weight by limiting calories or types of food.

You may know some adults and kids who worry about their weight and say they're going on a diet. You might wonder if you should be on a diet, too. But the majority of kids do not need to — and should not — diet this way.

Why? Let's find out.

Dieting to Lose Weight

All foods and many drinks contains calories, a kind of energy. When someone diets to lose weight, the person is trying to eat fewer calories than the body uses. By doing this, the person may lose body fat and decrease his or her weight. Likewise, if a person eats more calories than the body uses, the person may gain weight.

Kids usually do not need to diet in this way. Unlike adults, kids are still growing and developing. During this time, kids need a variety of healthy foods to keep their bodies growing properly. Some kids are overweight, but even overweight kids often can improve their health simply by eating nutritious foods and being more active.

Being overweight can cause health problems, but kids may hurt their health even more by doing something drastic, like skipping meals or deciding to eat only lettuce.

Who Needs to Diet?

Though some people may feel they weigh too much or too little, there is no perfect body shape. Some people have larger frames (bigger bones) and will always look bigger and heavier than people with smaller frames.

Talk to your doctor if you have questions about your weight. Your doctor can examine you and check your body mass index (BMI). That's a way of estimating how much body fat you have. If the doctor is concerned about your weight, he or she can recommend a couple of goals:

  • for you to gain weight at a slower pace
  • for you to maintain your current weight

For some kids, the doctor may recommend losing some weight, but this should be done with the doctor's help. Kids who need to lose weight may visit with a dietitian who can explain how to reduce calories safely while still getting all the necessary nutrients.

Dangerous Diets

Diets that don't include a variety of nutritious foods, or have too few calories, can be dangerous for kids. Some type of dangerous diets are called "fad diets," because a fad means something that's popular for a short while. Fad diets usually promise quick weight loss and require the person to follow a strict set of guidelines.

Some dangerous diets cut out entire categories of foods or require the person to eat just one thing, such as cabbage soup — yuck! The truth is there is no quick fix when it comes to weight loss. So pills, special drinks, all-liquid diets, and other gimmicks are poor choices, especially for kids. If someone offers you a diet pill or suggests you start having a magic milkshake that can make you thinner, tell them no! These diets can make people sick. They also usually end with the person regaining any weight that was lost.

Someone who is willing to take extreme steps to be thinner could have an eating disorder. These include anorexia nervosa (starving oneself) or bulimia nervosa (eating and then deliberately throwing up). They are serious conditions that need a doctor's attention.

Help for a Dangerous Dieter

If you know a friend or sibling who's following a dangerous diet, you need to tell an adult. You could turn to a parent, a teacher, or another adult you trust. You could also tell the person yourself that their eating habits are unhealthy, but you probably will need to get an adult involved, too.

It's not unusual for kids — or adults — to wish they were taller, or thinner, or that they could change something about their appearance. If you feel this way, talk to a parent or an adult you trust. You may need someone to help you understand these feelings and get a handle on whether your weight is a health concern.

The body changes that happen to kids during puberty include weight gain. This is normal, but it's a good idea to talk with your doctor about it if you or your parents have questions.

What Kids Can Do

So if kids don't need to diet, how can they stay a healthy weight? All kids can benefit from eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of physical activity.

Kids have a lot of choices when it comes to activity and exercise. Some like to play on sports teams or dance in troupes. Others may prefer to be more casual, riding their bikes or shooting hoops at the park. Just helping your parents rake leaves or clean the house is a kind of physical activity, though not as much fun as something like swimming! And it's a good idea to cut down on pastimes that aren't very active — such as watching TV or playing computer games.

Kids can also try to eat a variety of healthy foods. A balanced diet means that you don't eat the same thing every day and that you eat a mix of foods from different food groups. These include:

  • fruits and vegetables
  • milk and dairy products
  • meat, nuts, and other protein-rich foods
  • grains, especially whole-grain foods, such as whole-grain breads and cereals

This kind of diet helps your body by giving it the right nutrients. For instance, protein helps build your muscles and other body structures. Calcium helps your growing bones. And you need vitamins and other nutrients to keep your body working as it should. Fiber prevents constipation and carbohydrates give you energy, just to name a few.

Now that you understand more about diets, you can tell people you're on a very special one — a balanced, healthy diet just right for a kid!

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: September 2011

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses and treatment, consult your doctor.

© 1995–2014 The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth. All rights reserved.

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