In the U.S., 10% of young children aged 2 to 5 are categorized as obese. Two and 3 year olds are falling short of the USDA MyPlate and AHA/AAP Dietary Guidelines for Children, according to FITS. In particular, young children do not consume enough vegetables or whole grains and they consume far too many calories from solid fats and added sugar.
"We're seeing poor eating habits starting early in life, and they mirror those of older children and adults. Parents and caregivers need to know that eating patterns are set early—between 12 to 24 months. It's crucial to establish the foundation for healthy diets early in life when eating habits and food preferences are being formed," said Dr. Kathleen Reidy, DrPH, RD, Head, Nutrition Science, Nestle Infant Nutrition. "The new findings show how simple changes can make significant improvements in children's diets."
The new data from Nestle FITS provides insights about the evolution of children's diets, from birth through preschool, including sources of calories, key nutrients and snacking patterns. Highlights include:
Dietary Patterns Set by 24 Months of Age
• At 12–24 months, a diet low in fruits and veggies and high in sweets and saturated fats begins to develop. This pattern is established by 24 months, continues through the preschool years and mimics some of the unhealthy eating habits seen in older children and adults.
• By age 4, fruits and vegetables make up a small portion of the diet, about 5% of calories, and more than 15% of calories consumed are from sweets.
• Most preschoolers are still consuming whole or 2% milk, which accounts for about 30% of the saturated fat in their diets. And, on a given day, 75% of preschoolers are consuming too much saturated fat.
Between-Meal Eating Occasions Account for Large Portion of Calories
• Beginning at 12 months, one-third of calories comes from between-meal eating occasions, and, on a given day, snacks contribute about 30% of calories among preschoolers, so these choices need to be nutritious.
• Cookies, candy and crackers are the most popular snacks among toddlers and preschoolers, with snacks becoming less nutritious as children age.
Small Dietary Changes; Big Impact
• Simple dietary changes can lead to important improvements in the quality of children's diets.
• FITS findings illustrate that parents and caregivers need better nutrition guidance as young children transition through the second year of life to help develop healthy eating habits.
• Snacks should be considered mini-meals and parents and caregivers should offer healthy foods that contribute nutrition to a child's diet, such as fruits, vegetables, low fat yogurt and dairy and whole grain foods.
• Instead of sugar-sweetened beverages, offer water.
• At age 2, children should drink 1% or skim milk, in place of whole or 2% milk.
• Other foods high in saturated fat such as cheese and high fat meats like hot dogs and bacon should be limited. Replace with foods lower in saturated fat such as fruits and vegetables, lean meats and low fat dairy foods. Children also need healthier fats from foods like avocado and fish, and foods made with canola, safflower and olive oils.
"We are all responsible for the health of future generations, and it is much easier to establish good habits when children are young than to try to correct poor habits later," said Dr. Jose Saavedra, MD, FAAP, Medical Director, Nestle Nutrition. "Parents need consistent messages about how to feed young children in a healthy way. If we can help educate parents on the big impact of relatively simple dietary changes, we may be able to help prevent obesity and chronic disease in our children."
Nestle FITS, first initiated in 2002, is a comprehensive dietary intake survey of parents and caregivers of young children. FITS was expanded in 2008 and examined whether the eating habits of young American children had changed, in comparison to 2002 data. FITS 2008 also includes preschoolers and is the first study of such magnitude—more than 3200 children. The study provides information and insights on the diets and eating habits of infants, toddlers and preschoolers living in the U.S. Mathematica Policy Research, a nonpartisan research firm, conducted the study on behalf of Nestle.