Is Your Toddler Overweight? Causes, Tips To Keep Them Healthy

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Obesity is described as having too much fat in your body. An overweight toddler weighs higher than the average weight for toddlers of the same age group. A healthy weight trajectory for a toddler is where the child’s height and weight increase proportionally. Excess body fat develops when toddlers deviate from their ideal weight trajectory, which can be hazardous to their health (1).

This post discusses everything you need to know about controlling your toddler’s obesity and maintaining their health.

What Is Toddler Obesity?

Obesity is excess body fat often due to the toddler consuming more calories than they can burn. The presence of excess body fat due to obesity is a concern since it can increase the risk of developing serious health issues in the future.

There can be many reasons why a toddler could become overweight or obese, including medical and genetic conditions that cause the accumulation of excess body fat (2). However, in most cases, it is due to surplus ingestion of calories through calorie-dense food and a sedentary lifestyle.

If you think that your toddler is overweight or obese due to a medical condition, consult a pediatrician.

Toddler’s Growth And BMI

Body mass index (BMI) is the estimation of a person’s weight category based on their height and weight. You can calculate the BMI of your toddler by dividing their weight in kilograms by the square of their height in meters. It will give you a number, which is denoted by the unit kg/m2

It should be noted that BMI does not measure body fat directly but may often be correlated with more direct measures of body fat (3). Also, attaining the BMI number alone will not make it apparent if the toddler is overweight or obese. You will need a BMI percentile chart where you need to plot the toddler’s BMI.

Do note that the BMI is plotted for toddlers older than two years. Pediatricians will check only height and weight percentiles for infants and toddlers younger than two years. You may learn more about it by using our child growth percentile calculator here. 

BMI percentile chart for boys (older than two years)

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 

BMI percentile chart for girls (older than two years)

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 

The following are the interpretations based on where your toddler’s BMI plots on the graph.

  • Below the 5th percentile: Underweight
  • Between 5th and 85th percentile: Healthy
  • Between 85th and 95th percentile: Overweight
  • Equal to or higher than the 95th percentile: Obese

If your toddler falls in the overweight or obese category, consult a pediatrician. In most cases, parents may be able to tell the probable reason behind the toddler’s increased weight, which is often due to surplus calories and lack of exercise. 

What Causes Obesity In Toddlers?

Obesity and overweight in toddlers are most likely to occur due to the following reasons (4).

  • Lack of physical activity: A considerable lack of physical activity causes excess calorie retention in the body in the form of excess body fat.
  • Insufficient sleep: Insufficient sleep may be associated with obesity in some toddlers. Aspects of insufficient sleep may include late bedtimes and variable patterns in sleep schedules. These may lead to behavioral and metabolic changes, contributing to obesity over time.
  • Irregular eating schedule: If your toddler eats throughout the day without following any set schedule, they are likely to become overweight or obese.
  • Excess sugar intake: High-sugar foods are calorie-dense, and the excess calories can be quickly converted by the body into body fat, leading to overweight and obesity over time.

Some toddlers may become overweight or obese due to factors beyond their and their parent’s control, such as genetic problems, ailments, and side effects of some medicines. In such cases, the toddler may have other signs of ill health as well.

What To Do If Your Toddler Is Obese Or Overweight?

You may observe the following tips to make your toddler healthier at home.

1. Avoid excess sugars

Cut down on food items with excess sugar in your toddler’s diet. Food items with added sugars are usually loaded with sugars. An excellent example is commercially available fruit juice, which contains added sugar.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, fruit juices offer no nutritional benefits over whole fruit (5). Therefore, it is best to give your toddler whole fruit cut in small, easy-to-eat pieces so that they can get fiber and other nutrients that may not be present even in homemade fruit juices.

2. Encourage your child to try nutritious food

Children are known to be picky eaters. But you should encourage them to try different fruits and vegetables. Research shows that children should be given at least five portions of fruits and vegetables per day (6). A balanced diet containing food items from various food groups is the best for the toddler. You may read more about a balanced diet chart for toddlers here.

3. Ensure your toddler gets plenty of sleep

Recent studies suggest that children who get adequate sleep show signs of improved attention, behavior, mental health, and physical health (4).  Not getting enough sleep might lead to irritability and crankiness, and also increase the risk of obesity.

Toddlers between the ages of one and two years must get up to 14 hours of sleep, including naps, in 24 hours. Once they are three and older, they must get up to 13 hours of sleep, including naps, in 24 hours (7).

4. Keep screen time to a minimum

Screens should not replace parental and human interaction with a child. Increased screen time leads to decreased physical activity, increasing the risk of several health issues, such as obesity (8). Experts suggest that toddlers should not have more than an hour of screen time per day.

5. Make sure your child is getting plenty of exercise

Replacing screen time with moderate physical activity is known to help reduce the chances of obesity (9).  Take them to playgrounds or parks or let them have safe exercises at home. Making physical activity a part of their daily routine will prevent them from becoming overweight or obese in the first place.

6. Model eating nutritious food

Be a role model for your toddler and let them see you eating healthy while keeping your portions in check. Start healthy family mealtime habits, and both you and your toddler will benefit from it.

Overweight toddlers need pediatric evaluation and measures to keep their weight at normal levels. Being overweight and obese can be the triggering factor for many diseases. Irregular eating patterns, lack of sleep, excess sugar in the diet, and lack of physical activity can cause excess weight gain in toddlers. You may find the causative factors and avoid them to prevent further weight gain. Reduce screen time and encourage them to indulge in various activities. You may also provide well-balanced and nutritionally packed meals instead of junk foods with empty calories (10).

Key Pointers

  • Obesity occurs due to excess body fat; it may increase the risk of developing serious health conditions in the future.
  • Lack of physical activity, insufficient sleep, and excess sugar intake are some factors that cause obesity in toddlers.
  • Providing a nutritious diet, minimizing screen time, and encouraging physical activity are some ways to help children with obesity.

References:

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Dr. Dur Afshar Agha

(MS)
Dr. Dur Afshar Agha is a consultant pediatrician with decades of experience in various medical facilities both in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. She has headed the Department of Preventive Pediatrics at the prestigious, Children’s Hospital and Institute of Child Health in Pakistan and is a life member of the Pakistan Paediatric Association. She has also completed her Post Graduate Program... more

Sanjana Bhattacharjee

Sanjana did her post graduation in Applied Microbiology from Vellore Institute of Technology, India. Her interest in science and health, combined with her passion to write made her convert from a scientist to a writer. She believes her role at MomJunction combines the best of both worlds as she writes health-based content based on scientific evidence. Sanjana is trained in classical... more