By now it’s no surprise that what we eat affects our overall health. This truth is well-established, and year after year the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans have provided us with guidance on food choices and physical activity to promote our health and prevent disease. Yet for all the focus on food pyramids and now plates, the Dietary Guidelines has overlooked one the most important segments of the American population: our youngest children.
Indeed the old adage “you are what you eat” holds true for our youngest children—infants and toddlers—as well…and has a lifetime of consequences.
New evidence has emerged in recent years pointing to the essential role of good nutrition early in life, particularly in the first 1,000 days from a woman’s pregnancy through her child’s second birthday. Good nutrition during this critical developmental stage sets the foundation for a child’s health and well-being, providing the building blocks for brain development, healthy growth and a strong immune system. Ultimately, children’s brains and bodies depend on good nutrition to grow.
Guidance on good nutrition for our youngest children is no different than it is for us: eat healthy foods. Yet introducing first foods to children around six months of age can be a “black box” for many parents. What do we introduce first? How much and how often? There is currently no evidence-based guidance for parents on healthy first foods, so perhaps it should be no surprise that the epidemic of poor nutrition and obesity afflicting this nation is reaching our youngest citizens.
Research shows that the diets of our youngest children are mirroring those of adults, with excessive calorie intake as early as four months of age in the U.S. For starters, solid foods are introduced too early in the U.S. which runs counter to the World Health Organization and American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines which indicate that babies should start solid foods no earlier than six months.
By 12-15 months of age, French fries are the most common vegetable consumed, with 18.5% of American toddlers eating French fries at least once a day. These eating habits and food preferences begin in infancy and may be set as early as two years of age. As a result, for the first time in medical history, hypertension and type II diabetes have become pediatric problems among American children, as one in four children ages 2-5 is overweight and one in eight is obese. Obesity in young children can have devastating, long-term health implications, significantly increasing the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
Despite the evidence of this growing public health crisis, the U.S. does not yet provide guidelines on healthy eating and feeding during the critical window of development from pregnancy to age two. The good news is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are currently exploring evidence-based dietary recommendations for children under two and pregnant women as part of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines. It’s a long way off, but it’s a start. And we need to start somewhere – the health and well-being of the next generation depends on it.