The Scoop on Food

These Foods Cause the Most Weight Gain in Kids

A new study finds certain foods may be more to blame for extra weight gain among kids.

Young boy eating french fries Anna Jurkovska/Shutterstock
I am not a fan of the "Foods You Should Never Eat!" lists that seem to be all over the internet these days. It all sounds so needlessly extreme, so dire, so fear-inducingly final (read: "Why I'm Tired Of 'Foods You Should Never Eat!' Lists"). There's also a variation of this list: "Foods Your Should Never Give Your Kids!", which adds an additional layer of guilt and worry for good measure. You thought you were only slowly killing yourself by eating wheat? Ha!

So I was dismayed to see this headline last week: "The Worst Things You Can Feed To Your Children" in the Washington Post. But instead of being a list of forbidden foods, it described a recent study that asks a pretty interesting question: Could certain foods and drinks be more to blame for extra weight gain in kids?

The researchers followed more than 4,600 children in the UK, tracking their diet and other factors at ages 7, 10, and 13. In their findings, published in the journal Health Affairs, foods that were singled out for promoting greater weight gain included potato chips, breaded fish, processed meats, French fries, desserts, and sweets drinks.

Why would these lead to excess weight more than others? The researchers saw some patterns in the weight-promoting foods. The foods were...

  1. High in calories but not very filling. Foods that are "energy dense" pack a lot of calories but aren't particularly satisfying, so they tend to be eaten in large portions. In the study, potato chips (high in calories but nutrient-poor and low in fiber) were associated with more weight gain—but plain potatoes (filling, nutritious, and rich in fiber) weren't.
  2. High in added sugar. Sugar-sweetened drinks are particularly troublesome, because beverages don't tend to satisfy like foods do. So the brain doesn't register that you've consumed calories and are full.
  3. High on the Glycemic Index. These foods cause a greater surge in blood sugar and insulin, which may trigger more cravings.
  4. Low in fiber. Refined grains (and foods made with them like dessert) are low in fiber and not very filling. Fiber slows digestion, which makes you fuller faster and may help prevent overeating.

On the flip side, foods that were associated with less excess weight gain tended to be high in protein and fiber, like whole grains and high-fiber breakfast cereal. Both protein and fiber are shown in research to be particularly satisfying.

So does this mean that potato chips and French fries belong on a "Foods You Should Never Give Your Kids!" list? I don't think so. As a dietitian, I think kids (and grown-ups) can eat these foods occasionally without worry. But the mainstays of the diet should still be fresh, minimally processed foods. That means fresh fish a lot more often than frozen fish sticks, baked potatoes a lot more often than French fries, and fruits and veggies at snack time a lot more often than potato chips.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, author, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook Twitter Pinterest, and Instagram. She collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.