Is Your Toddler’s Diet Increasing The Risk Of Obesity?

Is Your Toddler's Diet Increasing The Risk Of Obesity?

Many of us spend a lot of time worrying about whether or not there is adequate nutrition in our toddler’s diet.

And then, before we know it, we’re worrying about how much our school aged children are eating, whether they’re active enough, and what their BMI (body mass index) is.

In fact, in an effort to reduce childhood obesity, many schools now measure and report their students’ BMI.

It’s clear Western societies are in the midst of an obesity crisis. BMI calculation, however, is controversial and can only be used as one piece of the puzzle when it comes to measuring one’s health,

Is Your Toddler’s Diet Increasing The Risk Of Obesity?

Researchers have done study after study. There are constant changes to nutrition recommendations, and endless dietary fads. They all aim to improve the health of Westerners.

But what if we are setting our children up for obesity before they’re even out of nappies?

A newer study has found the typical toddler diet just might be setting our children up for health and weight issues as they get older.

What Is A Standard Toddler Diet?

There’s no official standard toddler diet. The term is simply used to refer to common dietary habits of Western toddlers, based on what many parents report feeding their toddlers.

The study, which was published in the British Journal of Nutrition, and a previous Gemini study found many toddlers:

  • Consume far too much sodium
  • Don’t get adequate fibre
  • Have inadequate iron and vitamin D intake
  • Consume more than double the recommended amount of protein
  • Have a higher than necessary caloric intake.

In general, it seems our toddlers have the same dietary issues as many Western adults. Eating prepackaged foods, for example, causes the high levels of sodium. When we are looking for convenient nutrition, it’s understandable we might assume buying foods marketed to toddlers is a safe bet.

However, one major food company has been sued for misleading advertising. It promoted toddler foods that weren’t nearly as healthy as the company claimed.

How Does A Toddler’s Diet Lead To Future Obesity?

There are many theories about the causes of childhood obesity. It’s very likely several have some merit. Often it’s a cumulative effect of diet, lifestyle, genetics, and epigenetic changes.

The recent studies, mentioned above, found a considerable correlation between calorie and protein intake at 21 months and weight gain up to the age of five.

The study analysed data from a large dietary dataset of toddlers in the UK. It collected data in 2008-2009, from 2,336 children who participated in the Gemini study of a twin birth cohort.

The daily calorie intake of 21-month-old toddlers was 7% higher than the recommended intake, according to public health nutrition guidelines.

It makes complete sense toddlers who consume more than the recommended caloric intake would be at risk for obesity. However, researchers really wanted to find out where the extra calories were coming from.

Most parents don’t feed their toddlers bags of chips and chocolate bars. Parents want to do what’s best for their children and most understand the importance of good nutrition.

So, where did researchers find the extra calories and protein? The answer was: dairy.

Many toddlers were getting too many calories and too much protein from dairy products, and even from toddler formulas.

How Can Dairy Contribute To Childhood Obesity?

If you were raised in America and old enough to watch commercials in the 1990s, chances are you saw the famous ‘Got milk?’ ads. Most of us grew up hearing about the importance of three glasses of milk per day for great health.

As it turns out, dairy – especially skimmed milk – isn’t quite as healthy as we thought, when taken in large quantities.

Growing bodies and brains need protein, healthy fats, calcium and vitamin D, which makes milk a popular product for toddlers.

However, according to the findings of these studies, too much of a good thing can lead to a higher BMI and not enough other nutrients – for example, iron.

In the UK, it’s recommended a toddler consume, per day, about:

  • 968 calories
  • 15g of protein
  • 500mg of sodium
  • 15g of fibre
  • 7 micrograms of vitamin D
  • 6.9 micrograms of iron.

The Gemini studies found many toddlers averaged, per day:

  • 1035 calories
  • 40g of protein
  • 1148mg of sodium
  • 8mg of fibre
  • 2.3 micrograms of vitamin D

And 70% of the study participants did not meet the iron intake recommendations.

So, where does dairy fit in?

Researchers found about 25% of a toddler’s calories came from milk. And 13% of the research participants were still consuming toddler formulas.

Although the extra calories can certainly have an impact, the researchers didn’t see calories as having the main correlation with obesity. The biggest correlation was with protein intake.

Many of the toddlers were consuming more than double, and almost triple, the recommended protein intake. The Gemini study found dairy protein (not protein from other animal-based or plant-based proteins) was the driving force in weight gain in the first five years of life.

Consuming too much protein, especially from cows’ milk, can be a major contributing factor in a child’s weight gain.

Does This Make Dairy Bad For Children?

In short, not necessarily.

Growing bodies require adequate calories, protein, calcium and healthy fats. Not getting enough of these vital nutrients can lead to stunted growth. Deficiencies might even contribute to developmental problems, as the brain needs adequate nutrition to grow.

Dairy is an easily accessible source of these nutrients, and something many toddlers quickly guzzle down. After being weaned from breast milk or formula, many toddlers also find milk to be a comfort food.

These studies didn’t find cow’s milk to be inherently unhealthy; nor was it seen as the sole cause of childhood obesity. They did find, however, that too much protein from cow’s milk can contribute to excess weight gain in the first five years of life.

What does all this mean?

It’s likely many toddlers are consuming too much dairy in addition to their diet of solids. After the first year of life, we needn’t replace breast milk or formula with the same volume of cows’ milk, in addition to all of the solid foods toddlers eat.

What Should A Toddler Be Eating?

Many parents assume, when babies reach 12 months, they need to have several cups of cows’ milk per day. However, this seems to be contributing to weight concerns in childhood.

The recommendations above suggest 968 calories per day, and 15g of protein. We don’t need to count calories all day, and limit our toddlers’ intake. But it is important we are conscious of the volumes we offer them.

You might be surprised to know this: just 230ml (8oz) of whole fat cows’ milk contains a little over 7g of protein, or half the daily recommendation of protein for a toddler.

That means if toddlers have two or more 230ml/8oz servings of cows’ milk, they’ve already exceeded their 15g of protein, without including any solids or additional dairy (e.g. yoghurt, cheese, etc.).

You might also be surprised to know some leading nutrition and health experts don’t even recommend cow’s milk for human beings. Although it is a simple source of nutrition, it isn’t a necessity.

As well as over-consuming protein, many toddlers consume too much sodium, but not enough fibre, iron and vitamin D. Calcium can block the absorption of iron, so too much dairy, in combination with inadequate iron, can be problematic.

Many packaged convenience foods are high in sodium, and low in fibre and iron. Even those toddler foods marketed as healthy, natural or organic can be low in nutrients.

Things to keep in mind when planning your toddler’s diet:

  • A one year old who consumes cows’ milk needs only 230-350ml (8-12oz) per day.
  • Dairy isn’t required for human toddlers but they do need adequate calcium, healthy fats and protein.
  • The Gemini studies did not link other, non-dairy, sources of protein with an increased risk for obesity.
  • These alternative sources of protein include: meat, fish, beans, peas, lentils, eggs, peanuts and nuts.
  • Healthy fats can be found in olive and safflower oils, some coconut products, avocado, fish, eggs, and nut products.
  • Processed grains (including cereals marketed towards infants and young children) contain little nutritional value.
  • Wholegrain products (especially 100% wholegrain) are best, and contain fibre.
  • Most packaged or restaurant foods have high amounts of sodium and should be limited.
  • Whole fruits and vegetables can provide lots of fibre, vitamins and other nutrition.
  • Red meat, turkey, beans, leafy greens, peas and beans are good sources of iron.
  • Calcium is found in fish, beans and lentils, some leafy greens, almonds and seeds.

When it comes to toddler nutrition, offer your child lots of healthy whole foods (food that are not processed), and limit dairy products to recommended amounts.

Good nutrition now plays an important part in protecting your child’s health in the future.

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Maria Silver Pyanov is a mama of four energetic boys and one unique little girl. She is also a doula and childbirth educator. She's an advocate for birth options, and adequate prenatal care and support. She believes in the importance of rebuilding the village so no parent feels unsupported.

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