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Does Dieting Stunt Growth?

Published: 13th May 2018. Last updated: 21th July 2019.

Luna Smithton

Editor & Fact Checker


Introduction

Following a diet often means taking the first step towards a healthier and more fulfilled life. For children, it is particularly important to maintain a healthy weight, because obesity in childhood has been linked to a number of illnesses in later life – and even premature death.

One commonly asked question is, can following a diet at a young age stunt your growth? If you are under the age of 18-19 and are going on a diet, or have a child or a sibling who is, it is important to understand how reducing the intake of certain vitamins and minerals could impact their growth and development.

Moreover, it is key to ensure that dieting doesn’t stunt their growth – and what you can do to help stop it from happening.

In this article, we will discuss the important factors that come into play when we talk about healthy growth and development - as well as help you understand how children and teens can still achieve healthy weight without their diet having a negative impact on their growth.

Firstly, When Do Children Stop Growing?

Before we establish whether diet can stunt your growth, it is important to understand when teenagers may be at risk of stunted growth. Every individual will grow at a different rate, so it can be difficult to know when your growth and development have finished.

Puberty happens over an extended period of time. Most boys will begin puberty by the age of 12, and it will normally last from 2 to 5 years. This means that most boys will most likely have fully developed by 18, but there have been some cases of boys growing until the age of 21 – and even 25.

Girls, on the other hand are believed to grow faster than boys. They start puberty between the age of 8 and 14, with most girls having fully developed by the age of 19.

Poor Nutrition Can Stunt A Child's Growth

Since nutrition heavily contributes to healthy growth and development, it is inevitable that poor nutrition can, in fact, stunt your growth.

Not getting enough of the vitamins that are necessary to ensure our bodies grow up strong and healthy may lead to us not reaching our full potential when it comes to growth. In fact, that’s exactly why in severely impoverished countries have a particularly high incidence of stunted growth in children (38%). [1]

While children develop at different rates, what is normal growth to some children may actually indicate stunted growth in others.

Most teenage boys will need about 2,000 to 3,200 calories per day, while girls will require about 1,600 to 2,400 a day.

Not getting these calories – as well as not receiving an adequate amount of the key vitamins and minerals from your meals – can result in lack of energy and significantly stunt your growth.

Which is why, following a diet at a young age needs to be treated with extreme caution.

Nutrition Is Essential For Healthy Growth And Development

There are multiple factors that contribute to healthy growth and development – and healthy nutrition is one of the key ones. While our genes determine about 80 percent of our height, our diet and environmental factors determine the rest. [2]

To ensure healthy growth and development, our body needs a combination of vitamins and minerals. Without these minerals, our bodies may not be able to develop fully, and it may lead to stunted growth and various health issues.

The key nutrients our bodies need to grow and stay healthy are vitamins A, B, C, D, E and K, as well as minerals like iron, calcium, zinc and iodine.

Here are the roles that each vitamin plays in ensuring healthy growth – as well as keeping our bodies healthy:

  • Vitamin A: Needed for healthy skin, eyesight, growth, development and immune function.
  • Vitamin B complex: Helps release energy from food, promotes growth, red cell production and healthy brain function.
  • Vitamin C: Builds collagen, helps fights infections and absorb iron. Keeps bones, teeth and gums healthy.
  • Vitamin D: Helps absorb calcium to keep bones strong and healthy.
  • Vitamin E: Boosts immune system and helps with the development of healthy skin and eyes.
  • Vitamin K: Vitamin K is needed to help your blood to clot.
  • Folate (folic acid): Helps absorb protein and form new blood cells, as well as DNA.

There are also several key minerals our bodies need to maintain healthy functioning and growth, such as:

  • Calcium: Needed to build strong bones and teeth.
  • Iodine: Needed for normal growth and tissue development – as well as controlling the ways our cells make energy and use oxygen.
  • Iron: Important for the brain and blood – helps carry oxygen through the body.
  • Zinc: Essential for healthy growth, wound healing and immune system function.

Because our bodies absorb vitamins and minerals better from food rather than supplements, it is important to make sure that a growing body has access to enough of these in their diet.

Helping Your Child Lose Weight WITHOUT Stunting Their Growth

The fact that bad nutrition can stunt your growth doesn’t mean that an overweight child or teenager shouldn’t try to achieve healthy weight.

In fact, healthy nutrition and lifestyle should be a key priority for someone who is growing, and the fact that they are overweight indicates that their eating habits and lifestyle choices may need rethinking.

When you’re aiming to help a child, or a teenager lose weight, it’s less about “going on a diet” and more about making deliberate, healthier food choices. Many experts argue that children shouldn’t even know the word “diet” as it can have negative consequences on their self-esteem, may lead to developing an unhealthy relationship with food - and even increase their risk of developing eating disorders. [3]

The key to achieving healthy weight as a child or a teen without stunting growth, is replacing unhealthy diet patterns with healthier choices, foods that fight hunger - as well as incorporating the right amount of exercise and sleep.

Our Top Tips For Helping A Child Safely Lose Weight

  • Avoid high-glycemic meals. When a child/ teenager eats a high-glycemix meal, their blood-glucose surges and plummets, leaving them feeling even hungrier. A low-glycemic meal will take longer to digest, and a child’s blood sugar level will stay steady, leaving them feeling full for longer. Plus, food can affect their mood: when blood sugar drops after a high-glycemic meal, they may feel irritable, cranky and even unable to focus.
  • Veggies and fruits are key. Vegetables and fruits contain important vitamins and minerals, so should be among the top products for achieving healthy weight. However – potatoes and corn have a high glycemic index, and so do various fruits (bananas, pineapples, for example) – so do bear that in mind. Fruits like apples, grapes, oranges, berries are a better choice as they are low-glycemic.
  • Protein is key. Protein is essential in ensuring healthy growth and development and is also very beneficial in helping children achieve healthier weight. Plus, protein is really filling – and stimulates the release of a hormone that helps use up stored fat for energy. 
  • Avoid processed food. This is key in creating a healthier diet. Fake, processed foods such as chicken nuggets, cheese puffs and other products that don’t resemble natural foods found in nature are unhealthy – and should be replaced with healthier, more natural and less processed choices (brown rice, steel-cut oatmeal, etc.).
  • Not all fat is bad. It is important to still incorporate healthy fats like nut butters, unsaturated oils and avocado, into a child’s/ teenager’s diet. These healthy fats slow down digestion and make things like veggies, fruit and whole grains more filling. Fat is a key component to healthy functioning of our bodies – it makes cell membranes throughout the body and affects immune and nervous systems.

If you focus on making healthier food choices overall rather than putting your child or teen on a diet that only they need to follow, then they are less likely to feel singled out. Everyone could use some healthier foods in their diet, meaning that it can be a meal you eat as a family – rather than a special diet a child/ teen has to follow.

To make your food healthier and more filling, shift the balance to consume more low or medium-glycemic foods – and reduce the consumption of the ones that are high-glycemic:

  • Low: Carrots, broccoli, apples, beans, berries, hummus, nuts, plain yoghurt, unsweetened peanut butter, milk, cheese.
  • Medium: Sweet potatoes, banana, applesauce, sweetened peanut butter, brown rice, high-fiber cereal, pasta.
  • High: Potatoes, corn, white rice, chips, fries, jam, sweetened yoghurt, bread, pancakes, waffles, popcorn, pizza, taco shells, frozen yoghurt.

Conclusion

Achieving and maintaining healthy weight is incredibly important for children – not only to achieve healthy growth and development, but also because obesity at young age has been linked to several illnesses at a later age. However, dieting in children and teens needs to be treated with extreme caution.

Going on a diet as a child/ teenager could not only lead to stunted growth - it could also increase their chances of developing an unhealthy relationship with food - and even eating disorders.

Which is why, losing weight as a child or teenager should be about replacing unhealthy eating patterns with carefully selected healthier food and lifestyle choices, rather than “going on a diet”.

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