Growth Drinks for Kids: Do They Really Work?
Some kids struggle to put on weight or to grow taller, which is due to a number of factors including genetics, Vitamin D, thyroid conditions, and diet.
In these situations, pediatricians may recommend nutritional supplements, like chocolate and vanilla-flavored growth drinks, protein shakes, or “growth gummies,” and supplements to help underweight kids pack on pounds and/or stimulate their growth.
Popular brands that claim to promote growth and healthy nutrition in kids include Pediasure, TruHeight, Doctor Taller, and NuBest.
But do they really work? Or, are these “you’ll gain weight and grow tall!” protein shakes and snacks just one big gimmick?
Our expert pediatricians and pediatric endocrinologists weigh in on if growth drinks and nutritional supplements actually work to boost kids’ growth.
What Causes Slow Growth in Kids?
When a child's growth rate is below the third percentile for their age and gender — meaning 97 percent of their peers are bigger than them — this is known as growth failure.
Before looking into growth supplements or growth hormone treatments, it's important to understand what's considered normal growth in adolescents. People stop growing typically around puberty when their growth plates close. On average, boys reach their final adult height by the age of 16 or 17, while girls stop growing earlier, typically reaching their adult height at around 14 or 15 years old.
However, children grow at different rates depending on a number of factors including genetics, early nutrition, and various medical conditions like Turner Syndrome and Down Syndrome. In other diagnosed cases of growth failure in kids, a child may have a deficiency of human growth hormone (GH).
External factors like injuries from a fall or activities like gymnastics or football can also lead to a growth plate fracture that affects final adult height. Your pediatrician can help answer any questions you have about your child's growth and if they're on track.
Why Are Some Kids Underweight?
Beyond height, some children are also small due to being underweight for their age. While some skinny kids just haven’t had their puberty growth spurt yet, there are other medical reasons why kids may have trouble gaining weight.
“There are three reasons that a child may be underweight or undernourished,” says Dr. Dyan Hes, a NYC-based pediatrician. “The first is that there is inadequate caloric intake, the second is that there is increased energy expenditure due to illness, and the third is that there is malabsorption in the digestive tract.”
In turn, says Dr. Hes, “this leads to undernutrition, and these children often fall off their height and weight growth curves for age and gender.”
Do Growth Drinks Actually Work?
Growth drinks are a type of nutritional supplement marketed to parents of young children as an easy source of extra calories, vitamins and minerals. Some growth drinks also contain protein to help kids repair body tissue and put on muscle mass.
“There is definitely a role for oral nutritional supplements (ONS) in helping undernourished children,” says “Many children are picky eaters, and their parents struggle to properly nourish them.”
According to Dr. Hes, in these cases (where kids aren’t getting what they need from food) nutritional supplements such as Pediasure, can be very helpful.
Dr. Sissi Cossio of Pediatrix Endocrinology of Florida agrees with Dr. Hes that, ‘these boosts and protein shakes are helpful for children in certain, specific circumstances including ‘Failure to Thrive.’”
However, “if their diet is healthy and well-balanced, protein shakes are not necessary. Kids who are underweight and do not have a good appetite will be the ones who will benefit the most.
In order for children to have normal linear growth, an adequate amount of nutrients has to be available. If they meet the criteria for extra diet supplements, they will be helpful.”
Benefits of Growth Drinks and Supplements
Dr. Hes cites a 2003 study from Clinical Pediatrics that showed “children at risk for under-nutrition who received 2.4 servings of Pediasure per day, plus parental nutritional counseling, improved their mean weight for height percentiles compared to children whose parents ONLY received nutritional counseling.”
In a 2015 Journal of Nutritional Medicine study, children at risk for undernutrition who drank 2 servings of Pediasure improved their height percentiles by 8 weeks, “and this height increase was maintained for 24 weeks of the study,” says Dr. Hes. Children who drank Pediasure in both these studies “also increased their intake of other healthy foods and became better eaters.”
There are, of course, exceptions. Adds Dr. Hes: “ONSs will not help growth in children who truly have a growth hormone deficiency or short stature from genetic issues, but it may improve their nutritional status.”
When Should Kids Take Growth Drinks/Supplements?
Dr. Santhosh Eapen, chief of pediatric endocrinology at K. Hovnanian Children's Hospital in Neptune, New Jersey, shares his advice for kids who consume nutrition drinks such as Pedisure.
According to Dr. Eapen, if a child drinks their Pediasure, for example, during the daytime, “in my experience, that children will then eat less. It’s very important to focus more on a healthy diet as opposed to a ‘quick fix’ with nutrition drinks.”
So, he believes it’s best for your child to drink their protein drink at night, using the daytime hours to eat healthy meals.
He adds that taking a multivitamin that promises kids will gain weight is unlikely to cause any problems, “and if a child's diet is suboptimal, it may be beneficial...but most children who eat a well-balanced diet do not need a supplemental multivitamin.”
As for kids who take growth hormones—also generally prescribed by an endocrinologist if they believe they’re beneficial for the child—Dr. Eapen “does not think there is any problem taking these supplements (such as Pediasure) while on growth hormone therapy.”
How is Growth Hormone Deficiency Diagnosed?
If your child’s pediatrician feels your child is underweight or below average height due to a possible hormone deficiency, they may refer you to a pediatric endocrinologist who can check your child’s growth hormone levels.
Growth hormone deficiency can be caused by a variety of factors, such as a genetic condition or brain injury. If a child’s endocrine gland can’t generate enough growth hormone on its own.
To diagnose a growth hormone deficiency, doctors may use different blood tests to measure the levels of growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) in a child’s blood. Doctors may also use imaging tests to look at the pituitary gland and see if there are other reasons for growth problems.
If cases where below average height/weight are not related to insufficient nutrition, a pediatric endocrinologist can work with families to determine if growth hormone therapy is right for them.
What is Growth Hormone Treatment?
Growth hormone treatment or growth hormone therapy are typically injections or medications prescribed to children with diagnosed GH deficiency. Some treatments may stimulate the brain to produce more growth hormone. Other synthetic growth hormone injections can be used to mimic the body’s natural supply.
Still, growth hormone therapy does not work for all children. Growth hormone therapy can also cause other side effects in patients. It's important to work with your child's doctor to determine if GH therapy is right for their needs.
Consult Medical Professionals About Your Growth Concerns
Not every growth drink, growth gummy, or children’s nutritional supplement is proven effective.
“These products should be started under the guidance of a pediatrician or pediatric specialist,” stresses Dr. Cossio. “Also, a consultation with a nutritionist is very important to determine the adequate amount of supplements to be given and the diet modifications that could be necessary to achieve a normal weight.”
“In a child with a healthy weight and height, these products are not necessary.”
De Alarcón, P. A., Lin, L., Noche, M. J., Hernandez, V. C., Cimafranca, L., Lam, W., & Comer, G. M. (2003, April 1). Effect of Oral Supplementation on Catch-Up Growth in Picky Eaters. Clinical Pediatrics; SAGE Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1177/000992280304200304
Huynh, D. T. T., Estorninos, E., Capeding, M. R., Oliver, J., Low, Y. L., & Rosales, F. J. (2016, January 1). Impact of long-term use of oral nutritional supplement on nutritional adequacy, dietary diversity, food intake and growth of Filipino preschool children. Journal of Nutritional Science; Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/jns.2016.6
Was this article helpful?