How to Increase Appetite in an Underweight Child

Little girl eating meal.Kid healthy food background.
Involve your child in choosing foods. (Image: NYS444/iStock/Getty Images)

Though the prevalence of underweight children in the United States has decreased over the years, it is still a problem for about 3.5 percent of U.S. children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Your child is considered underweight if her body mass index is below the 5th percentile for her age and gender. BMI is a standard measurement of body mass that takes your child's age and gender into consideration. Before you do anything, take your child to see a pediatrician and have her evaluated based on clinical growth charts. Children come in all shapes and sizes, and it's crucial to make sure your child really is underweight first. Being underweight is different than just being slim or thin.

Rule Out Underlying Causes of Underweight

Trying to prod your child to eat more won't help if there's an underlying cause of poor appetite. That's why it's crucial to rule out medical causes of underweight. Undiagnosed food intolerance, dietary allergies and other digestive problems such as pediatric inflammatory bowel disease, commonly cause poor appetite in children. Everything from lactose intolerance, to Celiac disease -- an autoimmune reaction to the protein gluten in foods like wheat, rye and barley -- can impact a child's desire to eat and lead to decreased weight. Allergies to peanuts and eggs are also prevalent in children. Have your pediatrician rule out underlying issues that may prevent your child from eating enough and gaining weight.

Tailor Food Choices to Boost Appetite

If your child doesn't have an adequate appetite, you may have a picky eater on your hands. The truth is, children are often reluctant to accept new foods and may make a fuss over new textures and tastes. Take an inventory of the nutritious foods you know your child enjoys eating and tailor his meals around those foods. You may notice that he's willing to eat more when meals consist of his favorite foods. If your child is a picky eater, the initial rotation of foods may seem somewhat limited. However, with time, most picky eaters develop a normal appetite and begin accepting a wider variety of foods.

Ensure Your Child Gets Enough Exercise

In previous generations, children ran around for hours and played outside, expending a lot of energy engaging in physical activities. Today, more and more children are sedentary, choosing instead to play video games or use mobile devices. Encourage your child to get enough physical activity to help stimulate appetite. Children need 60 minutes or more of exercise each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Riding bikes or skateboards or joining a sport is a good way for your child to get plenty of exercise. You may notice that just by getting more exercise, your child's appetite increases.

Choose Calorie-Dense Foods to Boost Weight

If you're having trouble boosting your child's appetite, increase the calorie density of the foods you give her so she doesn't need to eat a higher volume of foods. Making some adjustments in food choices is a good way to increase calories. Try high-calorie snacks such as guacamole, made from fresh avocados, tomato and onions, along with whole-wheat crackers for dipping. Granola and trail mix are other excellent ideas for higher calorie snacks. Another versatile option is to make smoothies. You have the option of using various bases such as yogurt or almond milk and add your child's favorite fruits or nut butters.

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