How to Decrease a Toddler’s Childhood Obesity Risk

With patience, persistence, and tactical timing you can save your toddler from the health risks associated with being overweight.

American children’s waistlines are expanding. And although many parents are acutely aware of the risk of childhood obesity (and its links to adult obesity and life-shortening conditions) America remains rotund. But parents of toddlers are at an advantage. They can ward off the risk of obesity by providing the right foods at the right times to nurture a kid’s taste buds to a point where new foods aren’t repulsive … they’re exciting.

Experts agree that when it comes to fortifying healthy eating habits, the earlier parents start, the better. “Toddlers, and even younger children, are establishing their food preferences, many of which can last a lifetime,” says Malina Malkani, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Malkani says that promoting healthy eating early provides kids with the ability to explore new foods as they get older. The main benefit of this is that a broad palate provides options. “Allowing kids to develop tastes for different kinds of foods is really helpful to them because it gives them a whole spectrum of nutrients,” Malkani says.

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How to Decrease Childhood Obesity Risk in Toddlers

  • Cut the pre-supper snacks. Snacks can kill an appetite, and nobody enjoys kale for the first time without being hungry first.
  • Broaden their horizons. Exposing toddlers to new foods often helps them to be more willing to try new foods later in life, expanding their options for nutrients.
  • Be persistent. It takes about 16 “exposures” to a new food before a toddler will accept it.
  • Limit screen time. Toddlers are full of energy, and excessive screen time can prevent them from burning off the energy they need to stay healthy.
  • Remain positive. It can be disheartening when a lovingly prepared meal is rejected instantly, but persistence and patience pay off in the end.

But toddlers can be crazy stubborn come suppertime. The key to getting them to eat a balanced diet is to answer back with persistence. When toddlers reject a meal that took a long time to prepare, it can be disheartening for well-meaning parents, causing them to give up after only a few attempts. If they keep it up, though, results can and do happen.

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“Some parents expose a child to a new food and give up right away if the child refuses it,” Malkani says. “But research points to about 16 exposures before a child will accept a new food, depending on the child.”

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The term “exposures” doesn’t necessarily mean successful attempts at eating a new food, Malkani says. An exposure can be as simple as letting the food sit on the plate, with the child looking at it, smelling it, and touching it. A lot of parents can get frustrated when their kids reject food and end up battling their children over it. The key to getting the good stuff inside them, Malkani says, is patience.

“Mealtimes should be pleasant and should be times everyone comes together and enjoys the fellowship of food,” Malkani says. A major influence on the dietary choices of kids and adults is whether new healthy foods are enjoyable. Try not to be combative and embrace the role of provider.

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Snacks can derail mealtimes. If a child is desperately hungry at four o’clock and you hand them a less healthy snack like pretzels or crackers, Malkani says, then it’s likely that the kid won’t be hungry for a healthy dinner.

Screen time can promote a sedentary lifestyle, Malkani says, and that downtime is unnecessary for toddlers and little kids who love to run and play. “When left to their own devices, kids run around a lot,” Malkani says. Encourage them to do that and provide activities that allow them to burn off some of that energy, and limit screen time so they are not encouraged to be sedentary.

For parents concerned about their kid’s weight, Malkani says, they should certainly speak to the kid’s pediatrician or to a registered dietician who is familiar with pediatric populations. Both practitioners will offer long-term dietary advice and will almost never steer a family towards weight loss programs.

“Weight loss is not appropriate for toddlers,” Malkani says. “A doctor will recommend letting the child grow appropriately so that, over time, the weight evens out.”

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Embrace the kid’s tendency to run wild, and they will get all the exercise they need. High-intensity interval training can wait a few more years. “It is not necessary to schedule a workout for your toddler,” Malkani says.

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