By the time babies reach their first birthday, they’re typically getting one third of their calories from snacks—a dangerous eating habit that can put them at high risk for childhood obesity, according to the Nestlé Feeding Infants & Toddlers Study (FITS) presented at an Obesity Society meeting on October 3. The researchers also reported that cookies, candy and crackers are the most popular snacks among toddlers and preschoolers—and as kids get older, their eating habits only get worse.
What’s more, two and three year olds aren’t getting enough vegetables and whole grains and their diets include too many calories from fats and sugar (just like those of older kids and adults). The alarming result is that 10 percent of little kids between the ages of two and five are already obese, putting them in danger of developing a wide range of short-term and long-term health problems. The good news, however, is that simple changes in kids’ menus can dramatically reduce these risks. Here’s what you need to know to help your children get a healthy start in life.
What Are Parents Doing Wrong?
They’re not paying enough attention to dietary guidelines for children. For example, the USDA’s Daily Food Plan emphasizes grains, fruits and vegetables in portion sizes calibrated for a child’s age. The FITS study showed that in addition to the lack of vegetables and whole grains in kids’ diets, by age four, fruits and vegetables make up only five percent of their total daily calories compared to 15 percent from sweets. Also, most preschoolers drink whole or 2 percent milk, which makes up about 30 percent of the saturated fats in their diets. In any given day, the study found that 75 percent of preschoolers get too much saturated fat (found in meat and dairy products).
What Health Problems Can These Eating Habits Cause?
Overall, one third of American kids are overweight and 17 percent are obese. And the earlier obesity starts, the more likely it is to become a lifelong problem, taking a toll on health in a wide range of ways. Fat kids are more likely to have bone and joint problems, develop diseases like prediabetes and sleep apnea (bouts of interrupted breathing during sleep), and experience social and psychological problems. Scarier still, 70 percent of obese 5 to 14 year-olds have already had at least one risk for cardiovascular disease, the CDC reports. You can find out if your child is overweight with this online BMI (Body Mass Index) calculator for children and teens.
Are There Quick Fixes?
Yes. The study included these nutritional recommendations that can boost the quality of children’s diets:
- Think of snacks as “mini meals” that should consist of healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, low fat yogurt and dairy products and whole grain foods such as whole grain bread, brown rice instead of white rice and whole grain cereals like oatmeal.
- Give kids water to drink instead of sugar-sweetened beverages.
- By age two, youngsters should be drinking one percent or skim milk instead of whole or 2 percent milk.
- Limit foods that are high in unsaturated fats. These include cheese, and high fat meats such as hotdogs and bacon. Healthier fats come from foods like avocado and fish and those made with canola, safflower and olive oils.
What About Exercise?
Even little kids aren’t getting enough exercise for good health. In fact, new British guidelines advise parents to make sure that babies get exercise even before they can walk. The guidelines urge parents to minimize the amount of time little kids spend restrained in infant carriers or seats and discourages the use of walkers and baby bouncers on the grounds that limit free movement. The American Academy of Pediatrics, which is a supporter of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity, advises at least one hour of physical activity a day (that doesn’t have to be consecutive) for kids, and that parents limit children over age two to no more than 1 to 2 hours a day of watching quality TV shows, while kids under age two shouldn’t watch TV at all.
What is the Study’s Takeaway Message?
“Parents and caregivers need to know that eating patterns are set early – between 12 to 24 months,” said Dr. Kathleen Reidy, DrPH, RD, Head, Nutrition Science, Nestlé Infant Nutrition. “It’s crucial to establish the foundation for healthy diets early in life when eating habits and food preferences are being formed.” And because kids mimic what they see the rest of the family do, to prevent childhood obesity, parents need to be good role models by choosing healthy foods for their own meals, cutting down on high-calorie snacks, and making exercise a family priority.