The body composition of children changes as they grow and develop, and this process can be dangerously misunderstood

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This one is about a topic close to my heart because of personal experience, and because I work with parents and children of all ages to help them with general, as well as complex, nutritional needs.

I was a skinny young child. I remember pants would slide off my hips because I had none, and my mother was always trying to find clothes that fit me properly. I also remember being a pretty big eater as a child (nothing has changed there actually). Around 5th or 6th grade (so about age 10-12 years), during my physical, the doctor told my mom, with me right there, that I was putting on too much weight and she should watch what I was eating. Fast-forward to my 40s, about 20 years of disordered eating, working on recovery (it will always be something that’s a part of me), and now seeing children as a clinical nutritionist, not much has changed when it comes to the type of advice I was given so many years ago by that physician. We are a society overly concerned with weight, leading to negative feelings about body image. This is especially dangerous for young children.
During middle childhood (about age 5-10 years), body fat percent drops to a minimum of 16% in girls and 13% in boys. Around age 6, a growth spurt occurs called BMI (body mass index) rebound, and it results in an increase in height and weight (adiposity or fat mass). The increased body fat is a marker for the pace of puberty. In girls this happens earlier than in boys. Girls may have a 19% increase in body fat, and boys 14%. This increase, especially in young girls, can lead to concern that they are becoming overweight. Body composition changes dramatically in girls during puberty.  Lean body mass percent decreases, and body fat percent increases. During puberty girls can have a 120% increase in body fat. In order for a girl to start her menstrual cycle, she needs to have at least 17% body fat, and then body fat must be at 25% for her cycle to remain regular. This gain in body fat in girls is normal and required for normal physiologic function, yet it is often viewed as negative, leading to compromising health behaviors like excessive dieting, restriction, and exercise, and use of diet aids and laxatives that can lead to disordered eating, eating disorders, and severe health related consequences.
As a parent, you can reassure your child that changes in body composition are a normal part of growing up. Take care not to reinforce a preoccupation with size and weight. Keep in mind that children have the innate ability to internally control their energy (calories from food) intake. These internal cues can be altered by external influences. Children of parents who control their child’s eating have a lesser ability to innately respond to their own energy needs, meaning these children lose the ability to respond appropriately to their innate nutritional needs, and their internal controls of hunger and fullness. Parents who experienced difficulty controlling their own intakes may impose more restrictions on their children, and this transfer of unhealthy eating behavior may influence children as early as preschool age. If mom is on a diet, her daughter is likely to follow suit. Imposing controls and restrictions over dietary intake can actually promote increased intake of ‘forbidden’ or ‘restricted’ foods, and may be a risk factor for developing obesity in the future. Dieting, dietary restrictions and controlling child feedings ignore internal cues of hunger and fullness, and can contribute to the onset of obesity, and the beginning of eating disorders.

Keep in mind that boys are affected by disordered eating and eating disorders as well.
For more information or for help to ensure your child gets the nutrition he or she needs to grow and develop optimally, contact me today!
Brown J. Nutrition through the Life cycle 4th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth; 2011.

"Your nutritional needs are as unique as your fingerprint, and they are dictated by your individual biochemistry. As a clinical nutritionist, I can help you connect the dots to reach your health and wellness goals. This is personalized nutrition." -Jennifer Caryn Brand, MPH, MS, CNS, Clinical Nutritionist

Wishing you a delicious Friday and weekend!

Jennifer, MPH, MS, CNS
Clinical Nutritionist