Questions From Parents of Skinny Kids

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If you are the parent of a skinny kid, you undoubtedly want to help your child add weight healthfully—without eating tons of ice cream, super-sized fast-food meals, and expensive (as well as questionable) nutrition supplements. The following are some answers to the questions parents commonly ask about how to support appropriate weight gain in growing kids.

Q: My 16-year-old son insists that I buy him protein powders and weight-gain drinks so he can bulk up. Are these necessary?

A: No. The single most important thing your son needs is extra calories to perform resistance exercise, which builds muscle. Most of these extra calories should come from carbohydrate (not protein supplements) because carbohydrate will fuel his muscles and give him the energy he needs for exercise. I recommend replacing water (apart from during exercise) with extra juice and low-fat milk as a simple way to boost calories. Note that even with no exercise, just eating extra calories stimulates a little muscle growth. Sedentary people gain about 1 pound of muscle with every 3 pounds of total weight that creeps on.

Q: My 12-year-old son is shorter than many of the girls his age. He feels embarrassed and asked me about protein supplements. Would they help him grow faster?

A: No amount of extra protein will speed the growth process. Boys generally grow fastest between the ages of 13 and 14. After this growth spurt, he will have enough male hormones to add muscle mass and start to grow a beard ("peach fuzz"). This growth spurt lasts longer in boys than in girls. After the growth spurt, boys continue to grow slowly until about age 20.

Q: My 13-year-old son wants to start lifting weights to bulk up for football. Should he?

A: A well-supervised weightlifting program (to prevent stress on immature bones and ligaments) with light weights can help your son grow stronger and help prevent injuries. But it will not contribute to bulkier muscles until he has enough male hormones to support muscular development. (This corresponds with the growth of adultlike pubic hair.) Boys generally bulk up after they have finished their growth spurts. Remind him that patience is a virtue!

Q: Is creatine a safe way to gain weight?

A: Creatine is a naturally occurring compound found in meat and fish. Creatine is also available in powder and pills. The muscles use creatine phosphate to generate energy for one to ten seconds of intense work (such as occurs in weightlifting, wrestling, ice hockey, and sprinting). In people who respond to creatine supplements, their muscles may perform better during these brief, all-out exercise bouts (Terjung et al. 2000). But not everyone responds.

Research to date suggests that creatine causes no physical harm if taken in the recommended doses. The initial weight gain commonly seen with creatine supplementation may be due to water gain, but in the long term, the gain can be attributed to muscle mass. To date, no sports medicine organization has recommended the use of creatine in individuals under the age of 18; its use has not been extensively tested in growing children.

Q : My 14-year-old son is uncomfortable with his scrawny physique. He's heard that creatine will help him gain weight and asked me to buy some for him. What should I tell him?

A: As a 14-year-old, your son is at an impressionable age. Taking a muscle-building, performance-enhancing substance establishes a risky attitude that could lead to the desire to take other dangerous substances down the road. Your job is to encourage him to do his best and discourage a win-at-all-cost attitude. Although you must be truthful about possible benefits from the use of creatine, you can also send a strong message that discourages the use of creatine in young bodies that are still growing. Remind your son that there is no shortcut to excellent performance; it takes hard work. He will be proud when he achieves his weight goals "the old-fashioned way," with dedicated training and good nutrition. Tell him you think that using this substance is a poor choice for him. Remind him that the body he has at age 14 is not the body he will have when he is 15, 16, 17, or 18. He can look forward to lots of natural growth and development.

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