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The need for a new approach to childhood nutrition

July 16, 2018

Toddler eating french fry

With childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes on the rise, a spotlight has fallen on what and how much Americans are feeding their kids. In fact, the next round of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans coming out in 2020 will introduce recommendations for infants from birth through 24 months for the first time. Three speakers helped shed some light on the subject in a Monday morning session entitled “The Unique Nutrition and Feeding Needs of Infants and Toddlers.” 

Utilizing data from the “What We Eat in America” dietary interview component of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), Christopher Cifelli, vice president of nutrition research for the National Dairy Council, analyzed the eating habits of children from birth through age five. In this nationally representative sample of almost 2,500 children, the researchers hypothesized that dairy, fruit, and vegetable intake would decrease over time and negatively impact nutrient intakes.  

They found that this was indeed the case. By age 5 almost 100% of the children were not meeting the recommended daily intake of vegetables. This is comparable to Nestlé’s Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study (FITS), which in 2016 found that 25%–30% of children did not consume a distinct vegetable or fruit on the day of the research survey. As Erin Quann, director of nutrition research for Gerber Products Co. (owned by Nestlé), explained, “French fries become the No. 1 vegetable at 18 months of age, and this holds true through age 4.”  

One food that kids are getting enough of is grains. According to Cifelli, kids aged 4–5 are eating the equivalent of 5 ounces of grains a day, and as Quann added, almost half (40%) of those aren’t whole grains. “To me, these are low-hanging fruit—or I guess low-hanging grains,” said Quann. “There are a lot of opportunities for new product development in this space.” 

Both Cifelli and Quann elucidated that poor food choices result in nutrient gaps. Quann’s research revealed that a growing number of infants are not getting enough iron. Eighteen percent of those aged 6–12 months are falling short of the recommended iron intake, an amount that has nearly doubled since the first FITS study in 2002. These infants are “missing out on a chance for optimal brain health,” said Quann.  

Cifelli’s research highlighted the fact that 30% of kids aged 4–5 aren’t meeting their calcium needs, which has obvious impacts on bone health later in life. “Guidelines are set to optimize growth and development and prevent chronic disease,” explained Cifelli. “When a significant portion aren’t meeting their nutrient needs, it could lead to health outcomes later in life.” 

So how do we get kids to eat healthier food, when, as Quann explained, children are beginning to formulate their eating habits by age 2? As Julie Mennella from Monell Chemical Senses Center drove home in her presentation, “It isn’t just an infant issue—it’s a family issue.” Our taste and olfactory systems are developed by the second trimester in utero, and within a few hours of birth, infants exhibit a strong preference for sweet tastes. This is biology, explained Mennella, but “our biology isn’t necessarily our destiny.” 

“We learn to like what we eat,” said Mennella. That is, children can learn from repeated exposure to healthy foods to like and prefer those foods. It’s not just the dietary habits of American children that need to be addressed, she explained. It’s really the entire American culture. As Ellen Swallow Richards, the first American female chemist and founder of the home economic movement, said—and Mennella quoted to end the session—“Science has to apply its knowledge to (improve) home, for upon the welfare of the home depends the welfare of the commonwealth.”