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How Much Should My Child Really Be Eating and Moving?
For the first time in two centuries, the current generation of children may not live longer than its parents. This is largely due to the prevalence and severity of childhood obesity, which increases the risk of serious health problems such as heart disease. In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that as many as one in three U.S. adults could have diabetes by 2050.
I know these statistics sound scary, but they don’t have to be. Many parents do a great job providing the nutrients their children need. But it’s common to sometimes question whether our kiddos are getting enough veggies, having too much sugar, snacking too often or moving too little.
So what are the right amounts? Before I hit you with the numbers, it’s important to understand something called energy balance and how it affects not only your child’s growth and weight, but also their mood, behavior and ability to concentrate. After all, healthy kids are happy kids.
Energy balance is essentially energy in (calorie consumption) vs. energy out (calorie expenditure). While this balance – or lack thereof – plays a large role in weight gain, weight loss and weight maintenance, it’s important to remember that children are constantly growing – building muscle mass and bone mass. They’ll likely gain four to eight pounds a year until puberty.
It’s also important to understand that children don’t have to be in perfect energy balance every day. Healthy weight gain is all about long-term balance. Just as eating too much over time can lead to certain health problems, so can eating too little. A negative energy balance (more calories out than in) over time can set a child up for:
- A slower metabolism
- Decreased bone mass
- Hormonal imbalance
Similarly, a positive energy balance (more calories in than out), often brought on by a lot of processed foods over time, can lead to:
- Cognitive delay
- Behavioral issues
- Sleep problems
Unless it’s recommended by their doctors, children should never be on a restricted-calorie diet. Parents can help their children maintain a healthy energy balance by being aware of their daily caloric and nutritional needs.
Daily Caloric Needs
The amount of calories children need depends on age, gender and activity level.
A toddler needs about 1,000 calories a day, whereas a very active 18-year-old boy may require more than 3,000. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers helpful charts that provide estimates for parents as their children grow.
Keep in mind: As children’s caloric needs increase, so will the recommended amounts of healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. And some kids may require more calories when they’re experiencing growth spurts or participating in rigorous activity.
Daily Exercise Needs
Toddlers and preschoolers should get one to two hours of active playtime each day. Kids (6 and older) and teenagers should get at least one hour of moderate to vigorous activity. Get creative with your kids!
Active playtime for toddlers and preschoolers can include:
- Playing catch with a favorite soft toy
- Shooting mini hoops with a small ball and bucket
- Counting jumps over a string in one minute
- Counting hops on one foot
- Playing Simon says or follow the leader
- Playing hide-and-seek
- Playing dress up
- Participating in homemade obstacle courses
Moderate to vigorous activity for older kids means anything that increases their breathing or heart rate. Activities can include:
- Brisk walking
- Wall climbing
- Raking leaves or shoveling snow
- Going for a bike ride
- Mowing the lawn
- Running or jogging
- Playing tag, soccer, hockey and basketball
Finding that Balance
Again, it’s all about finding balance. A parent’s job is to lay the foundation of healthy habits by offering plenty of nutritious options, setting appropriate food boundaries and encouraging playtime over screen time.
Get involved! Start replacing the phrase “Go play” with “Let’s play.” Allow your children to help you make creative, healthy snacks.
If you need any help at all, don’t hesitate to call your child's provider. Raising healthy kids certainly takes a village, and we're happy to be part of yours!
- How much sugar is too much? Find out.
- Need a provider for your child? Find a Methodist pediatrician or family medicine provider today.
- Read more articles on Family Health.