Is your child underweight?

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Your child is smaller than his friends. He’s not putting on weight as he should, and it’s beginning to worry you now. With the help of Kerryn Gibson, a dietician based in Durban, and Bridget Surtees, a dietician from Cape Town, we look at why this is happening and how you can sort it out. 

Undernutrition
The primary cause of growth failure in children is undernutrition. This means not getting enough energy and nutrients to grow and maintain good health. 

Undernutrition can be caused by:

Not enough nutrients. When children aren’t given the right types of foods to eat or are allowed to fill up on processed foods, they miss out on key nutrients which they need to grow normally. Limited food availability can also affect nutrient intake, and the ability to gain weight. 

Inadequate protein intake
. Protein is necessary for the growth of tissues and muscles. Without enough protein, your child’s physical and cognitive growth and development will suffer.

Poor feeding skills, e.g. difficulty biting, chewing or swallowing food.

Malabsorption. This is the failure to fully absorb nutrients. This is common in conditions like lactose intolerance, coeliac disease and cystic fibrosis. 

Illnesses that cause poor appetite, e.g. constipation, the common cold and depression. 

Food allergies. A child with multiple food allergies can only eat certain foods. Strict diet restrictions can make it difficult for him to pick up weight. 

Excessive loss of nutrients as a result of vomitting or chronic diarrhoea. 

Help at hand

  • Instil good eating habits. What your children tend to like and dislike has a lot to do with you, and behaviours they learn from parents. So it’s important to set a good example for your child to copy. If you’re not happy or in doubt about your own way of eating, state of health or weight, change things now so that your child doesn’t battle with similar problems. 
  • Stock up on healthy goodies. The foods your child is exposed to on a daily basis will be the foods he comes to expect and see as normal.
  • Eat fresh. Prepare meals based on fresh ingredients, and avoid pre-prepared meals and foods. Convenience foods have a poorer nutrient density compared to fresh, unprocessed foods. Children have small appetites, but high requirements, so they need nutrient dense foods to sustain their growth.
  • Enjoy treats. Allow treats once or twice a week. Children need to see these foods as occasional and not everyday foods. 
  • Eat and sleep – on a schedule. Plan your child’s sleeping and eating routine together. Don’t let him sleep over a meal time. A child who sleeps too long in the day will often miss a meal or snack. This is a missed opportunity to get nutrition in and can affect growth. Set specific times for meals and snacks, and stick to them! Don’t let your child graze throughout the day. This may mean he’ll never be hungry at a meal or snack time. 
  • Set boundaries. Don’t give in if he refuses to eat the food you give him or asks for unhealthy foods. Stand your ground and establish strict boundaries with what he can and cannot eat. Put familiar foods alongside the food he’s reluctant to eat, and make foods interesting and exciting. For example, make vegetable kebabs or shape the food into funny faces. Praise him when he tries new food. 

TIP Offer protein rich foods like chicken, fish, and soya at each meal. Children need protein to grow properly and stay healthy.
Note: If your child has a medical condition that impacts his ability to eat or dietary requirements, the above doesn’t apply. Work with your doctor and a dietician to help your child gain weight steadily.

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