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As children grow and their bodies change, it's not always easy for parents to tell if a child falls within a healthy weight range. Body mass index, or BMI for short, is a standard measurement of body fat. Your child's BMI can help you determine if he is at risk for health problems based on his weight. Measuring the waist or neck circumference is another way to measure body fat in kids. Your health care provider may also do this.
The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend BMI screenings for all kids age 2 and older. Here's what you need to know about checking on your child's BMI and what to do with the info once you have it.
What is BMI for Kids?
BMI estimates how much body fat you have. Calculating a child's BMI number starts out just like calculating an adult's BMI. It's based on height and weight. But for kids, height and weight alone aren't as accurate as they are for adults. Why? Because kids' body fat percentages change as they grow. Kids' BMIs vary based on their age and gender.
That's why when health care professionals talk about a child's BMI, you won't usually hear a plain BMI number, like 25, but rather a BMI percentile, like 75th. These BMI percentiles show how a child's BMI compares to other children of the same age and gender. To calculate the BMI percentile -- which is also called "BMI for age" -- a health care provider or an online tool like WebMD’s FIT Kids BMI Calculator takes a kid's BMI (along with age and gender) and looks it up on a pediatric growth curve. This gives the child's BMI percentile.
BMI percentiles are grouped into weight categories:
Underweight: below the 5th percentile
Healthy Weight: 5th percentile up to the 85th percentile
Overweight: 85th percentile up to the 95th percentile
Obese: 95th percentile or higher
So, for example, a 6-year-old boy with a 75th percentile BMI has a higher BMI than 75 out of 100 6-year-old boys. And though you may think that means he is heavy, he is considered a healthy weight.
Talking With Your Pediatrician About BMI for Kids
Many parents assume that if their child had a high BMI, their pediatrician would tell them. But that's not necessarily the case. Sometimes pediatricians may not bring up weight issues with parents. So if you're interested in your child's BMI percentile, it's best to ask directly.
Some school districts have started to measure all children's BMIs in school. The school then sends home a BMI report card to alert parents to any weight issues. Although some parents don't like the idea of schools sending report cards with their child's BMI, experts say that the point is not to embarrass anyone. It's to let parents know about a health problem with serious consequences.
Studies from the U.K. show that children's BMI report cards can work. One study found that after getting a BMI report, about 50% of the parents with overweight children made some healthy changes to their lifestyle.
How Accurate is BMI for Kids?
Experts generally consider BMI for kids to be a good measure of body fat, at least among heavier children. But there are some cases in which BMI might be misleading. Athletic kids, in particular, may fall into the overweight category when they are actually muscular.
Your child's BMI is important, but it is only a piece of the picture. If a BMI percentile indicates that your child is not within the healthy range, she needs a complete weight and lifestyle evaluation with a pediatrician.
The pediatrician will likely follow up with an exam to see how far along your child is in her development and perhaps tests for weight-related health conditions, and by asking questions about her diet and exercise, whether weight is an issue for her, and your family history. This information will allow the health care provider to determine the best way to respond to an underweight, overweight, or obese BMI percentile.
Tips for a BMI Percentile in Healthy Range
Experts recommend that kids of all ages and all weight categories follow these healthy guidelines to help keep weight in check. It's easy to remember them as 5-2-1-0 every day.
5: Everyone in your family needs five servings of vegetables and fruits. Keep serving them even if kids don't eat them. Familiarity increases the likelihood that they'll eventually try a food. Give a fruit or vegetable with every snack or meal.
2: Limit TV-watching to no more than two hours a day. Family members who use other "screens" -- video games or computers, for instance -- get less TV time. Experts also recommend not having TVs in bedrooms.
1: Get one hour of physical activity. Add up the minutes each family member is moving -- it should be 60 minutes or more. Start small and keep adding if necessary. The goal is to have all those minutes be at least moderate activity, sweating after about 10 minutes.
0: That's how many sugar-sweetened beverages you should have a day. Juice drinks such as lemonade and fruit punch, sodas, tea, and coffee can all have added sugar. Stick to water and reduced-fat milk instead.
Here are some other expert-recommended eating guidelines.
Start each day with breakfast.
Avoid eating fast food, and the temptations from eating out in general.
Eat together as a family -- regularly.
Check portion sizes, and serve your family accordingly.
Are you feeling down in the dumps? Are you irritated at how often you’ve been irritable?
Perhaps it’s time to look at the foods and drinks you consume to see if they are trashing your mood. Nutrition experts say that the foods you eat can help you feel better -- or feel worse -- in the short-term and the long-term.
Meal-to-meal and day-to-day, keeping your blood sugars steady and your gastrointestinal (GI) tract running smoothly will help you feel good and energetic. If your blood sugars are on a roller-coaster ride -- hitting highs and lows from too much sugar and refined flour – you are more likely to feel out of sorts. This is also true if your gastrointestinal system is distressed due to intense hunger from a fad diet or constipation because you aren’t getting enough fiber and water.
Week-to-week and month-to-month, keeping your body healthy and disease-free makes good moods more likely. For example, key nutrients you get in certain foods can influence the levels of feel-good hormones such as serotonin. Other nutrients can help prevent inflammation so blood circulates well to all of your organs.
“Eating a heart healthy diet -- high in fiber and low in saturated fat -- is a great place to start to boost your mood. There isn’t any question about it, says Diane M. Becker MPH, ScD, director of the Center for Health Promotion at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Conversely, “a high-fat, high-glycemic load meal can make you physically feel dysfunction in your body. People who eat this type of meal tend to feel bad and sleepy afterwards,” she says.
6 Tips for Foods and Beverages That Help You Feel Good
1. Seek out foods rich in vitamin B12 and folic acid (folate).
What’s special about chili made with kidney beans and lean beef? Or a light chicken Caesar salad made with skinless chicken breast and romaine lettuce? Or grilled salmon with a side of broccoli?
All these dishes feature one food that is rich in folic acid (folate) and another that is rich in vitamin B12. These two vitamins appear to help prevent disorders of the central nervous system, mood disorders, and dementias, says Edward Reynolds, MD, at the Institute of Epileptology, King’s College, London.
The link between higher food intakes of folate and a lower prevalence of depressive symptoms crosses cultures, too. A recent study confirmed this association in Japanese men.
Folic acid is usually found in beans and greens. Vitamin B12 is found in meats, fish, poultry, and dairy.
Other dishes that feature B-12 and folic acid-rich foods include:
A burrito or enchilada made with black beans plus beef, chicken, or pork
A spinach salad topped with crab or salmon
An egg white or egg substitute omelet filled with sauteed spinach and reduced-fat cheese
2. Enjoy fruits and vegetables in a big way.
Fruits and vegetables are packed with key nutrients and antioxidant phytochemicals, which directly contribute to your health and health-related quality of life.
In a one study, eating two more servings of fruits and vegetables a day was associated with an 11% higher likelihood of good functional health. People who ate the highest amount of fruits and vegetables felt better about their health.
3. Eat selenium-rich foods every day.
Selenium is a mineral that acts like an antioxidant in the body. What do antioxidants have to do with feeling better and minimizing bad moods? Research suggests that the presence of oxidative stress in the brain is associated with some cases of mild to moderate depression in the elderly population.
One study evaluated the depression scores of elderly people whose daily diet was either supplemented with 200 micrograms of selenium a day or a placebo. Although more research is needed to confirm the findings, the group taking selenium had higher amounts of selenium circulating in their blood and significant decreases in their depression symptoms.
Try to get at least the recommended daily allowance for selenium: 55 micrograms a day for men and women.
Whole grains are an excellent source of selenium. By eating several servings a day of whole grains such as oatmeal, whole-grain bread, and brown rice, you can easily get 70 micrograms of selenium. Other foods rich in selenium include:
Beans and legumes
Lean meat (lean pork or beef, skinless chicken or turkey)
Low-fat dairy foods
Nuts and seeds (especially Brazil nuts)
Seafood (oysters, clams, crab, sardines, and fish)
4. Eat fish several times a week.
Several recent studies have suggested that men and women have a lower risk of having symptoms of depression if they eat a lot of fish, particularly fatty fish like salmon, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3s from fish seem to have positive effects on clinically defined mood swings such as postpartum depression, says Jay Whelan, PhD, head of the department of nutrition at the University of Tennessee.
Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include:
5. Get a daily dose of vitamin D.
Does a little time in the sun seem to make you feel better? The sun’s rays allow our bodies to synthesize and regulate vitamin D.
Four recent studies showed an association between low serum levels of vitamin D and higher incidences of four mood disorders: PMS, seasonal affective disorder, nonspecified mood disorder, and major depressive disorder.
Researcher Pamela K. Murphy, PhD, at the Medical University of South Carolina says people can help manage their moods by getting at least 1,000 to 2,000 IU of vitamin D a day.
That’s significantly more than the Institute of Medicine’s Recommended Dietary Allowance for vitamin D, which is 600 IU daily for ages 1 to 70, and 800 IU for people over 70.
Very few foods naturally contain vitamin D. So she recommends we get vitamin D from a variety of sources: short periods of sun exposure, vitamin D supplements, and foods.
Vitamin D can be found in:
Fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel
But our primary source of dietary vitamin D is fortified foods, such as breakfast cereals, breads, juices, and milk.
6. Treat Yourself to 1 oz of Chocolate
“Small amounts of dark chocolate can be a physical upper,” says Becker at Johns Hopkins. “Dark chocolate has an effect on the levels of brain endorphins,” those feel-good chemicals that our bodies produce. Not only that, but dark chocolate also seems to have a heart-healthy anti-clogging effect in our blood vessels.
In one study from the Netherlands, Dutch men who ate 1/3 of a chocolate bar each day had lower levels of blood pressure and lower rates of heart disease. The chocolate also boosted their general sense of well-being.
How Foods and Beverages May Make You Feel Bad
Just as some foods can help you feel better, others can make you feel down. Here are ways to reduce the harmful effects of three foods that can drag you down.
1. Reduce foods high in saturated fat.
Saturated fat is well known for its role in promoting heart disease and some types of cancer. Now researchers suspect saturated fat also plays a role in depression.
The link was found in a study called the Coronary Health Improvement Project, which followed 348 people between the 24 and 81. A decrease in saturated fat over a six-week period was associated with a decrease in depression.
2. Limit alcohol carefully.
That “feel-good” drink, alcohol, is actually a depressant. In small doses, alcohol can produce a temporary feeling of euphoria. But the truth is that alcohol is a chemical depressant to the human brain and affects all nerve cells.
Depending on the amount of alcohol consumed, people can go quickly from feeling relaxed to experiencing exaggerated emotions and impaired coordination.
It’s no coincidence that depressive disorders often co-occur with substance abuse, and one of the main forms of substance abuse in this country is alcohol.
3. Don’t go crazy with caffeine.
Caffeine can increase irritability a couple of ways.
If the caffeine you consume later in the day disrupts your nighttime sleeping, you are likely to be cranky and exhausted until you get a good night’s rest.
Caffeine can also bring on a burst or two of energy, often ending with a spiral into fatigue.
Some people are more sensitive than others to the troublesome effects of caffeine. If you are sensitive to caffeine, decrease the amount of coffee, tea, and sodas you drink to see if this helps uplift your mood and energy level, particularly in the latter part of the day.