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Disappointing Diets for Children

Weight-Loss Diets Designed for Adults May Cause Children to Gain Weight
WebMD Health News

March 4, 2004 (San Francisco) -- While a low-carb diet may add up to quick weight loss in adults, preschool children who cut back on carbs are likely to end up as fat teens, according to new findings from researchers with the Framingham Children's Study, an offshoot of the ongoing Framingham Heart Study.

When children ages 3 to 5 are fed low-carb diets, the results show up during their teens, says Framingham researcher Lynn Moore, DSc, associate professor of medicine at Boston University.

And that's not all. Moore tells WebMD that both low- and high-fat diets during the formative years also add up to flabby teens.

She says that one way to protect against teenage obesity is to increase intake of dairy products among 3- to 5-year-olds. Children who averaged than more than two glasses of milk or more than two servings of cheese or yogurt a day were more than an inch slimmer as teenagers.

Moore says that the minerals calcium and magnesium are probably the major players in preventing normal-weight kids from turning into plump teens. Dairy, fruits, and vegetables all add up to leaner teenage years, she says.

Green leafy vegetables are rich in magnesium. Unrefined grains and nuts also have high magnesium content.

But kids who eat high-fat diets -- meaning that more than 35% of their calories come from fat-laden foods -- accumulate about "an inch more in body fat" by the time they reach their teens, she says. When little children are fed low-carb diets, they average about three-quarters of an inch in added girth by the teenage years.

Noting that children on low-fat diets, which were defined as diets in which less than 20% of calories came from fat, added about a third of an inch of fat to teenage bodies, Moore says, "The message of the study is moderation. Diets that have moderate amounts of fat and carbohydrates as well as dairy and fruits and vegetables are less likely to be associated with obesity during the teens."

The message for parents, says Moore, is that a diet that might lead to weight loss in adults is not useful as an obesity prevention strategy for children.

Moore, who presented her findings at the American Heart Association's annual Conference on Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention, analyzed the dietary habits of 106 families who had children aged 3 to 5. The children were followed for an average of 12 years with three-day food diaries collected four times each year. "We assessed fat by measuring skin folds from four sites on the body and calculating the mean sum of those fat folds," she says.

Stephen Daniels, MD, PhD, professor of pediatrics and environmental health at Cincinnati Children's Medical Center and the University of Cincinnati, tells WebMD that the study underlines the need to "encourage moderation in children's diets. Both high- and low-fat diets were associated with greater gains in body fat, while moderate fat intake -- in the range of 30% to 35% -- was associated with less body fat gain."

Daniels, who was not associated with the study, says the study also showed that the glycemic index, which is a concern for adult low-carb dieters, also "has no effect" on children.

"Again the message is that we need to be very careful about extrapolating from adults and attempting to apply that information to children," says Daniels.

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