More young children than ever are overweight, but there's plenty you can do to help your child achieve a healthy weight.
Being overweight is bad for your pre-schooler's health now and in the future. Overweight children are much more likely to become overweight adults, putting them at increased risk of a range of health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.
What's more, it's not always easy to tell if toddlers and very young children are overweight. Your child may be classed as being overweight by our BMI calculator, even though they do not look overweight to you.
But there's encouraging news. You can do a lot to help your child achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Remember, if you're concerned about your child's weight then your GP, practice nurse, school nurse or health visitor can give you help and advice.
How children become overweight
Just like adults, children become overweight when they consume more energy through food and drink than they use. But, unlike adults, children are still growing and that means they need more energy for growth.
Most overweight children don't need to diet. They may not even need to lose weight. Instead, they can try to keep their weight the same as they grow taller. That way, they will steadily get closer to a healthy weight. But if your child has an overweight BMI, it's important they change their eating behaviour and do regular physical activity to achieve this.
Good food for young children
When it comes to your child's diet, you don't need to count calories. Instead, give them a healthy, balanced diet that will set them up for a lifetime of healthy eating.
The best way to get your child to eat healthily is to lead by example. If your child is overweight, think about attitudes to food in your home. Do you eat together as a family, or grab snacks on the go? Is the television on at mealtimes? Do you prepare food yourself or rely on takeaways?
Establish a regular pattern of meals, so the whole family can enjoy mealtimes together, instead of allowing your child to snack whenever they feel like it.
Cook the same food for everybody, even if it's not possible for everybody to eat at the same time. Switch the television off at mealtimes, as it's easy to overeat if distracted.
How to get kids to be more active
Physical activity burns calories that your child has consumed. It's also important if your child is to develop strong, healthy bones and muscles. Best of all, being active is part of childhood, and it's great fun.
Children who can walk on their own should be physically active every day for at least three hours, spread throughout the day, indoors or out.
Apart from when they're sleeping, children under the age of five should avoid being inactive for long periods. Watching TV for hours or being strapped into a buggy for too long isn't good for their health and development.
Join Change4Life for free and your child will get their own personalised activity plan full of good ideas for getting moving.
This Change4Life LazyTown challenge is a great way to get pre-school children to move more.
Healthy eating rules for young children
- Base your meals on starchy carbohydrates, such as pasta, rice and potatoes.
- Eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
- Eat lean proteins such as meat, fish, eggs, beans, pulses and lentils.
- Cut down on saturated fat (found in processed meats, pies, cakes and biscuits).
- Cut down on sugary foods such as biscuits, cakes and fizzy drinks.
- Cut out sugary drinks like sweetened fruit juices and fizzy drinks, and if you give your child unsweetened fruit juice, dilute it with water. Find out about healthy drinks for pre-school children.
- Cut down on salt, both in cooking and at the table. Most children over four eat too much salt. Supermarket ready meals and processed meats are often high in salt, so check food labels when you buy. Here are ways to cut down on salt.
You can find more information about healthy food for kids in What to feed young children.
Healthy snacks for under-fives
If your child is hungry between meals, give them healthy snacks, such as fresh fruit or a glass of milk. Avoid sugary foods, such as biscuits, chocolate and cakes.
Calcium is particularly important for children, so make sure your child has three portions of calcium-rich food every day. Dairy food is an excellent source of calcium, so three portions could be a glass of milk, a matchbox-sized piece of cheese or a yoghurt.
From the age of two onwards, you can give semi-skimmed milk to your child. Fully skimmed milk is not suitable until the age of five.
Try these Change4Life healthy snack tips for young children.
Tips for fussy eaters
If your child refuses to eat certain foods it can seem difficult to introduce a healthier diet.
Try to change your child's eating habits one step at a time. First, think about the rest of the family's eating habits, as your child may be copying them. If you're not eating vegetables, your child is unlikely to.
Think about the healthy, balanced diet you want your child to eat and then make that normal in your house.
Gradually introduce your child to a wider range of foods, including new fruits and vegetables. Try the following tips:
- Give them bite-sized amounts at first. Large portions of unfamiliar foods will be off-putting.
- Praise your child for trying new foods, but don't criticise them if they don't. Mealtimes should be fun, not stressful or like a test.
- Evidence suggests that new foods sometimes need to be offered up to 15 times before they are accepted, but you only need to offer a very small amount (bite-sized) each time. Be patient and keep giving the food to your child on different occasions.
Article provided by NHS Choices