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Young children need fewer calories than previously thought

20 June 2013

Existing equations used to calculate the amount of energy that children aged 3-4 years old use in rest overestimate the number of calories needed by 8-19%. For young and small children in particular, the formulas overestimate what they need in terms of energy. Dietary advice based on these formulas could even lead to overweight, according to UMCG researcher Anna Sijtsma, who will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on the 25th of June 2013. Her PhD research was conducted as part of the GECKO Drenthe study.

Preventing overweight starts at an early age, but how do you know what a 3-year-old child needs in terms of calories? For scientific purposes and for use in the clinic, equations have been developed to calculate this amount of energy. Based on a child’s height and weight, the number of calories needed for normal growth can be calculated.

Muscle tissue and fat

Existing formulas estimating energy use at rest are mainly based on children’s weight and height. However, according to Sijtsma, the actual energy use is related to fat-free or lean mass. This led Sijtsma to the conclusion that the formulas do not work well for young and small children aged 3 or 4. If dietary advice would be based on these formulas, it could lead to overweight.


Sijtsma also investigated the physical activity of even younger children. One of the ways she did so was by measuring the amount of time they had the opportunity to move freely. Children who were given more time to move freely at the age of nine months had a smaller waist circumference than those who had less opportunities to move freely. According to Sijtsma, more time to move freely can contribute to a healthier growth pattern for children in their first year of life.

Bedroom television

Sijtsma investigated the relationship between the weight of 3 and 4-year-olds and the amount of time they spent watching television, the amount of time they spent sleeping, whether or not there was a television in their bedroom and the number of televisions at home. Based on the data from 759 children, Sijtsma was able to establish that a short amount of sleep, more screen time and a television in the bedroom was associated with more overweight in 3 to 4-year-olds. At this age, it did not make any difference whether the children played outside much or not.

GECKO Drenthe

Sijtsma's research was part of the long-term GECKO Drenthe study being conducted at the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG), at the Groningen Expertise Centrum voor Kinderen met Overgewicht (Groningen Expert Centre for Children with Overweight). The study began in 2006 with about 2800 children, who will be followed from birth to adulthood.

Curriculum Vitae

Anna Sijtsma (Dokkum, 1986) studied Human Movement Sciences at the University of Groningen. She conducted her research at the UMCG Epidemiology department, in the section ‘Lifestyle Medicine in Obesity and Diabetes’, and at the UMCG Child Paediatrics department. The research was based on the GECKO Drenthe birth cohort and took place at the SHARE research institute, supervised by Prof. P.J.J. Sauer, Prof. R.P. Stolk and Dr E. Corpeleijn. The research was financed by the Edgar Doncker Fund. Sijtsma’s thesis is entitled ‘Physical activity and overweight in young children’.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.32 p.m.
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