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Is Your Preschooler Overweight? 5 Ways to Help

by Vannessa Rhoades 16 Jun 2023
Is Your Preschooler Overweight? 5 Ways to Help

Chubby babies are adorable. Those cute, round cheeks and sweet dimpled hands are precious! You may be happy to learn that, until your kiddo turns two years old, you don't need to stress too much about their weight, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). As they get a little older, though, you may be concerned about whether they're on track and start asking yourself, “Is my preschooler overweight?” 

Trying to figure out whether your child is at a healthy weight can be challenging for parents. Every child is unique and can look totally different based on things like their genes and metabolism. Let’s take a closer look at what's typical for toddler weight, why some kids struggle with obesity, and some tips to help your child stay healthy.

What is Considered Obese in a Child?

Not all big children are obese. Some have growth spurts and gain weight unevenly. Some simply have a larger frame that can support more weight than average. Obesity is characterized by having a body mass index (BMI) at or above the 95th percentile as depicted by the growth charts organized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). BMI is computed using weight and height. You or your pediatrician can enter that information into the CDC's BMI percentile calculator to see the results for your child’s age- and sex-specific BMI.

BMI can be a useful screening tool in determining whether a child is overweight, but it’s not the only factor to consider. Very muscular kids can also have elevated BMIs without being obese. There’s a spectrum of what is considered typical and healthy depending on how fast a child is growing, their genetics, and other issues.

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Causes of Obesity in Children

Obesity has become increasingly prevalent among American children. Nearly 20% of children and adolescents are considered obese, putting them at an increased risk for poor health, according to the CDC. Research shows that a number of changes in family variables among normal and overweight preschoolers can influence obesity.

  • Eating too many processed snacks, fast food, and sweets that are high in calories can lead to obesity. Also, sugary drinks like juice and soda can be alarmingly calorie-packed.
  • Not moving around enough can burn fewer calories and contribute to weight gain. So, if your child spends a lot of time watching TV, that can be a factor.
  • If many of your family members, especially close relatives, are overweight or obese, it may increase the risk for your child.
  • Feeling sad, bored, or stressed at home due to emotional or financial issues can lead to overeating and extra weight gain.
  • Living in an area with no safe places to run and play or without access to healthy food options can contribute to obesity.
  • Certain prescription medications can lead to weight gain in children.

Consequences of Childhood Obesity

An overweight preschooler is at an increased risk for a number of serious health conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, asthma, orthopedic issues, liver issues, certain cancers, menstrual irregularities, and sleep apnea. In addition, many obese children struggle with profound emotional and social challenges, including bullying, decreased confidence, and negative body image. Though a preschooler may not experience any of these consequences immediately, the more time they remain overweight, the more inclined they are to become overweight teens and adults who are at risk for these conditions. 

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How to Help if Your Preschooler or Toddler is Overweight

If you suspect your child may be overweight, the first step in helping is to schedule an appointment with their pediatrician. They can evaluate your child and help you develop a plan to help you get your little one to a healthy weight. It’s important to note that experts caution against putting children on a weight loss diet unless advised to do so by a physician. Gradual changes to the diet are safer. That said, there are a number of healthy changes parents can make at home to reduce the risk of childhood obesity.

1. Limit or eliminate fruit juice.

Although it's okay to occasionally include fruit juice in a toddler's diet, it's best to encourage water or milk as their primary beverages. This is because fruit juice may contain artificial sweeteners or added sugar, which can add empty calories and not provide much satisfaction for your little one. Even when juice is consumed without added sweeteners, it doesn't offer the same fiber content that whole fruits provide, which can leave your child feeling less full.

2. Offer plenty of nutritious options.

We all know that young kids can be fussy eaters, but don't give up on offering them a variety of healthy foods such as fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins. Studies have shown that it may take multiple attempts before a young child is willing to try and enjoy a new food. To help your picky eater warm up to certain foods, experiment with different preparation methods, such as raw, mashed, roasted, or pureed, which can change the texture and feel of the food. By trying different approaches, you may increase the likelihood of your selective eater developing a liking for a particular food.

3. Minimize screen time.

When children spend more time watching screens, they usually end up being less active. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends parents limit non-educational screen time to about 1 hour per weekday and 3 hours on the weekend days for children ages 2 to 5 years. Kids who watch a lot of television are also exposed to lots of fun, catchy commercials for sugary snacks and cereals. To mitigate this, you can mute commercials when watching TV with your child, or use streaming services that don't have commercials. This can help you limit your child's exposure to persuasive marketing and encourage healthier habits.

4. Incorporate exercise.

Toddlers and preschoolers should engage in physical activity almost every day, preferably through outdoor play whenever possible. While it's not necessary to establish a formal exercise regimen for young children, you can encourage their physical activity by taking them to nearby playgrounds, enrolling them in a sport or group activity, allowing them to ride a toy scooter or tricycle, or going on walks as a family. By incorporating playtime into their routine, you can help your child develop healthy habits and get the exercise they need to grow and thrive.

5. Model healthy eating.

Creating healthy family mealtime habits is important. Prepare meals that are nutritious and balanced. During mealtime, make it a point to turn off your cell phones, television, and other electronic devices, and gather around the table for family dinners. Involve everyone in the family in adopting healthier habits, so that your toddler doesn't feel left out. By doing this, everyone in the family can benefit from better nutrition and more exercise, leading to a healthier lifestyle for all.

The Takeaway

As a parent of a preschooler or toddler, keep in mind that you can instill healthy habits now to reduce the risk of obesity in the future. By making positive changes to your child's diet and lifestyle, you can help protect and improve their health, setting the foundation for healthy eating habits that can last a lifetime.

Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions or concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your healthcare provider.

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