The online ads had been following me around for weeks. They were promoting a drink mix designed to help kids grow taller. As someone with two kids who both skew on the small side, I couldn't help but be curious, so I clicked on it.
But I was also highly skeptical. Could a drink really boost growth for regular kids? And how feasible was it to ask a kid to drink a shake, no matter how good it tasted, twice a day for up to a year as the website suggested—all in the hopes of gaining some height?
I dug into the details and consulted with Parents advisor and pediatric dietitian Jill Castle. Here's what you should know:
Food should come first.
The drink mix I saw is high in protein and contains nutrients like zinc and iron that are involved in growth. But whether your child is simply a picky eater or falling off his growth curve, actual food should be the first place to turn. If your child isn't growing well, it could be due to a lack of calories, protein, or nutrients, says Castle. She advises frequent opportunities to eat (every 3-4 hours), an evening snack, positive parenting around food, and working with a dietitian who can help you. "I would be looking at a product like this as a later step in treatment, after exploring a food solution," says Castle.
There's a difference between having growth failure and being naturally small.
Some children have growth hormone deficiencies, medical conditions that decrease nutrient absorption, or other issues that can impact growth. And other kids are simply smaller due to genetics. "A product like this has the potential to be misused among families, especially those who might believe it can alter growth that is already good, natural, and not problematic," says Castle. No doubt there are children in the U.S. and around the world with medical issues that interfere with growth who might benefit from a special supplemental drink. But there are also plenty of parents hoping for a few extra inches so their kid can excel at sports or be taller than his peers.
You need to read the fine print.
The marketing for the drink says it's clinically shown to add height when taken as part of a balanced diet. It was studied on healthy kids ages 3-9 who were referred to an endocrinologist for growth concerns. After six months, the children who drank the beverage gained an average of 0.5-0.9 centimeters more (less than half an inch) than those who didn't. Those results can't be generalized to all kids, especially those outside the studied age range or kids who aren't eating a healthy diet too.
Drinks aren't a picky eater solution.
I personally cringe whenever I see drinks (and bars for that matter) marketed as an answer to picky eating frustrations. "I have seen children get stuck on liquid supplements with no plan to get off, which can limit their acceptance of other foods in the future," says Castle. Sometimes supplemental drinks are helpful for providing extra nutrition, but they aren't a replacement for offering healthy foods at meals and snacks.
As I was researching this drink, I received an email from another company developing a similar product. So we may all be seeing more ads for these shakes online. My advice: Proceed with caution, talk to your child's doctor about her growth before trying it, and if you're worried about your child's diet, see a dietitian to help you.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of the forthcoming book The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.