Everywhere you look and listen you will find stories about youth obesity in the United States, but being underweight also poses a problem for children. If your child is slim or has a slight build, that is not the same issue as being underweight. Elena Serrano, extension specialist at Virginia Tech's Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise, points out that truly underweight children may have nutritional deficiencies, medical conditions or emotional problems contributing to their condition. Fortunately, parents of underweight children have several options for boosting their weight.
Do Your Homework
You've tried jamming more zucchini into the bread recipe or adding protein powder to smoothies, but have you though about any underlying problems affecting your child's weight and nutritional needs? "It’s important to rule out underlying triggers that diminish appetite in kids," says Judy Converse MPH RD LD, pediatric dietitian at Nutrition Care for Children. "All the creative cooking strategies in the world won’t overcome these problems, which can be active with only a weak, picky appetite as the presenting symptom."
She points to nutritional deficiencies in iron and zinc as the usual suspects in appetite and weight issues, as well as "reflux, immune reactions or inflammation from foods, and undiagnosed infections in the gut." Treat problems such as food allergies, vitamin deficiencies and digestive issues to improve your child's physical health and you might see a turnaround in appetite. This shift will lead to your underweight child gaining and growing without the food fights and stress.
Converse has several behavioral strategies parents can use to boost weight for underweight children. "Start with the assumption that children eat adequately when they can digest and absorb food comfortably, and when they are not harboring anxiety, fears or worries. When you know this is true for your child, it’s easier to present new foods with a neutral demeanor."
She underscores the importance of maintaining a low-stress atmosphere while eating. "Keep your own tensions and fears out of meal times, and set the stage for eating to be positive and relaxing. It’s OK to strike bargains with your child to try new foods, even toddlers. For example, allow a favorite activity in exchange for trying a new food. Giving sweets or junk food in exchange for healthy foods is a slippery slope that teaches kids to value the junky stuff more, so don’t go there too often."
Converse observes, "Correcting underweight, growth failure and poor eating habits is probably what I am asked to do most often in my pediatric nutrition practice." Fortunately, several hospital, government and educational websites offer parents quick strategies to increase the calories in meals. The nurtritional information posted on the Los Angeles Children Hospital's website advises to serve children cream-based rather than broth-based soups. Top crackers and vegetables with cottage or cream cheese. Spread peanut butter on fruit slices or spoon some into smoothies. Serve dried fruit, nuts and cheese cubes as snacks.
Parents can take a page from the book of preschool teachers and have their children participate in growing food, shopping for groceries and cooking it. Converse advises, "Engage them in the process: Let them help you prepare food, cook or bake from scratch with them when you can; let them choose smoothie ingredients, pick menu options or put them in charge of growing a few veggies or herbs, even if it’s just a pot on your windowsill." The more invested your children feel in the choosing and preparing of their meals, the more likely they will consume them.
Trust Your Instincts
"Since triggers for these problems can remain hidden even with regular pediatric care, I encourage parents to trust their instincts most of all," says Converse. This might entail getting a second medical opinion, obtaining a consultation from a specialist, consulting with a nutritionist or trying alternative therapies such as homeopathy.
Converse sums it up, "Bottom line, if you think something is awry for your child, or you sense there are answers you haven’t yet found, you are probably right. Talk to your doctor, seek other opinions and referrals if need be, and talk with other parents who have been there."