Although obesity is a growing problem among both adults and children, being underweight is an even bigger issue especially here in the Philippines. According to the 8th National Nutrition Survey 2013 conducted by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute of the Department of Science and Technology, underweight prevalence among children 0-5 years of age is at 19.9% (2 out of 10), and a staggering 29.1% (3 out of 10) among children 5-10 years of age.
Most people associate being underweight with the lack of food. However, there are many possible reasons why a child would be underweight aside from inadequate food intake. Appetite, genetics, poor diet, feeding problems, and underlying medical conditions may also cause your child to be underweight. Being underweight is an issue that should be addressed especially among children because undernutrition can have long-term effects such as poor mental and working capacity, stunted growth, higher risk of diabetes and hypertension in adulthood, as well as physiological stress.
According to Charmaine Manango, a registered nutritionist-dietitian, Protein-Energy Malnutrition (PEM) may develop in young children when parents mistakenly provide “health foods” that actually lack adequate energy, protein, or fat. She adds, “PEM may also develop when children are suffering from intestinal parasites, so make sure that children are free from parasites by having regular check-ups with your child’s pediatrician. To prevent intestinal parasites, make sure that the home is always clean, and remind children to always wash their hands. Practice good hygiene.”
Some children may still suffer from being underweight despite the healthy foods that their parents are providing them. The problem may lie not in the food or the amount of food that the child eats during a meal, but in the frequency or number of meals that the child gets to eat. Manango explains, “Kids have small tummies. Most of them cannot tolerate eating a large amount of food in one sitting. You can give your child small, frequent meals at proper times daily. I suggest three regular meals – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – and two snacks – one in the morning and one in the afternoon.”
Aside from increasing the frequency of meals, Manango also recommends evaluating how meals are eaten at home, “Encourage children to focus on eating together with the rest of the family which means removing electronic gadgets like iPads and turning off the TV during mealtimes.”
A healthy, balanced diet is a must. Instead of filling up your little one’s tummy with empty calories like those in cakes, ice cream, sweet treats, and other junk foods, it is better to focus on giving your child foods that are high in protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals. The following food items are just a few high-calorie, high-fat, nutrient-rich foods that are good to have as staples in your child’s diet to help him gain weight.
1. Root crops There’s a wide variety of root crops that you can easily prepare and serve to your child such as sweet potatoes (kamote), cassava (kamoteng kahoy), yam (ube), and potatoes. Root crops are excellent sources of carbohydrates that will provide your child’s body with the energy that it needs. You can simply boil or bake them and serve them to your child with some butter or honey. Instead of feeding your child French fries from fast food joints, cook them from real potatoes at home and serve them to your child for snacks or as a side dish. There are many other ways to prepare these root crops. Find one that will appeal to your child’s tastes.
2. Eggs If you are one of the few who does not have eggs as part of their family’s regular diet, it’s about time to include it! While eggs are known for being a great source of high quality protein, that’s not all that eggs can offer. Eggs also provide vitamin A, vitamin D, choline, and selenium. However, many nutrition references recommend limiting your child’s intake to one egg per day to avoid too much cholesterol and saturated fat. Just like with all types of food, the key is to consume eggs in moderation along with other nutrient-rich foods.
3. Full cream milk Milk has long been known to be good for growing kids. It is a good high-calorie source of calcium, protein, and vitamin D. However, there is no need to force your child to drink milk everyday if he is one of those who simply do not like it. There are numerous ways to incorporate milk in your child’s diet aside from drinking it from a cup. Try recipes that use milk such as sopas, chicken pastel, and pasta with creamy sauce. You can also make milk shakes with fruits that your little one would surely love to drink. If your child is lactose intolerant, keep in mind that there are also other foods that are excellent sources of calcium, protein, and vitamin D.
4. Nuts It does not matter whether you give your child regular nuts, almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, pistachios, or other nuts, because they are all high in fat – the heart-healthy kind. Different nuts vary in terms of the amount of each nutrient they provide, but they are good sources of protein, calcium, vitamins, and minerals. Although you can certainly try recipes that use nuts, feel free to simply give your child a packet of nuts for snacks. However, as peanut allergy is one of the most common forms of food allergies, make sure you check before giving your child anything that has nuts in it.
5. Peanut butter Since nuts are excellent sources of good fats, calcium, protein, vitamins, and minerals, peanut butter is a great option if your child has a sweet tooth. Use it on fresh fruits, breads, crackers, or even vegetable slices. However, before you grab a jar of peanut butter from the grocery shelf, check the label for ingredients that you should avoid such as hydrogenated oil. Go for natural peanut butters that have as little "extra" ingredients as possible, or better yet, make peanut butter right in your own kitchen!
6. Cheese Just like milk, cheese is an excellent source of calcium and high quality protein. It is also high in energy and fat. What’s great about it is you can add it to almost anything. Although a lot of kids enjoy cheese sticks, slices, and cubes eaten as is, you can also try serving it with breads, crackers, and pasta. Because of its sodium content, cheese is also a good alternative to salt for giving foods a bit of a salty taste.
7. Yogurt Not too many people know it, but yogurt can help in weight gain because of the high calories it provides. Just like other dairy products such as milk and cheese, yogurt can be a good source of protein and calcium. Whether you choose the fruit-flavored ones off the shelf or you want to serve the yogurt with your child’s favorite food, make sure to avoid the low-fat ones that have become popular in recent years. You’d want your child to have those healthy fats for weight gain.
8. Avocadoes This super fruit is one that has an awesome monounsaturated fat content AND it is high in calories! Not only will avocadoes help if your goal for your child is weight gain, it is also good for the skin because of its rich vitamin A, D, and E content. The only catch is that avocado is a seasonal fruit, and may only be available in the market during the months of May to September.
9. Mangoes Most kids love mangoes so it shouldn’t be difficult getting your child to eat them. It is loaded with vitamins and minerals, making it an excellent option for your child’s snacks or desserts. Aside from eating the fruit directly, feel free to use it in recipes such as pies and fruit shakes.
10. Breads and pastas Make sure to include starch in your child’s diet such as breads and pastas. These are great sources of calories which are necessary if your child needs to gain weight.
The key to a healthy weight gain is to consume a high amount of calories in the form of nutrient-rich foods like the ones above. Maximize the calories that your child consumes by mixing up these nutrient-rich foods in recipes. Make sure to also work closely with your child's pediatrician so he can monitor his progress.