Eighteen-month-old Eloise is proud of her belly: She loves to pull up her shirt and rub it when she’s about to eat, and she likes the attention when strangers comment on how cute and rotund she is. But her mother, Sylvie Michel,* isn’t as thrilled.
“When she was 15 months old, she was already in size 2T clothing — and busting out of it!” says Michel. “Her tops would peel up above her tummy. And people make jokes, especially when her stomach hangs out.” Michel worried that Eloise’s enthusiasm for food could turn into weight issues later on.
Michel’s elder daughter, now four, was tiny as a toddler and never displayed the insatiable appetite Eloise seems to have. While a kid who eats any and all food may sound like a dream to parents of picky eaters, Michel half-wondered whether she needed to put little Eloise on a diet or teach her about eating in moderation.
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“Never put a toddler on a diet,” says Corinne Eisler, a registered dietitian and paediatric nutrition expert in Vancouver. “When you restrict a child’s caloric intake, they tend to panic, and then they overeat.”
Instead, Eisler recommends you ensure the entire family is eating a healthy, balanced diet together, with lots of fruit and vegetables, and protein and dairy sources. Serve your toddler new foods with familiar favourites, and expect to offer new foods up to 10 times before he will try it. Eisler also emphasizes the importance of saying no to specific foods that contribute to weight gain and obesity. Telling your child that pop isn’t an everyday food teaches them healthy boundaries.
Most parents are familiar with the percentile system, which paediatricians use to check weight and length and to monitor growth trajectory. But Tom Warshawski, head of paediatrics at Kelowna General Hospital and chair of the Childhood Obesity Foundation, explains that the charts are mostly used to assess whether children are growing sufficiently, not whether they’re too heavy. “We don’t even worry about it unless the child is underweight,” he says.
Warshawski emphasizes that the same general guidelines apply to both adults and children — in other words, sugary drinks and sweet snacks are bad for us, and bad for our kids. If your toddler is active and eats well, his body will eventually grow into its right weight. Serving fresh vegetables and high-fibre foods will ensure he’ll feel full.
“If they’re chubby at two or three,” says Warshawski, “healthy food and activity will work together to convert that to muscle by the time they’re five. There’s no good evidence that excess fat as a toddler leads to obesity in adolescence or adulthood.”
For parents who, like Michel, already maintain a healthy, balanced diet for their families, Eisler and Warshawski point to two stealth culprits — juice and milk. Toddlers shouldn’t be consuming more than 500 to 600 millilitres (16 to 20 ounces) of whole milk every 24 hours. As for juice, Warshawski has an oft-repeated warning for his patients: “You drink your water and you eat your fruits — you don’t drink your fruits.”
*Name changed by request
A version of this article appeared in our April 2012 issue with the headline, "Weight watchers," pp. 72.
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