Too Much Saturated Fat and Sodium in Preschoolers’ Diets

We all know that kids typically consume way too many empty calorie foods and beverages—especially those laden with solid fats and added sugars. A new analysis of just less than 3,300 parents and caregivers of young children between ages 0 and 4 who are part of the Nestlé Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study (FITS) reveals that preschoolers  consume nearly one-third of their total daily calories (about 400 per day) from solid fats and added sugars. The findings were presented recently at the Experimental Biology 2014 meeting in San Diego.

Researchers found that about half of the preschoolers’ calories come from milk, cheese, bread and rolls, ready-to-eat cereals, poultry, butter, margarine and other fats. They also found that whole and 2% milk, cheese and hot dogs are among the foods that contribute excessive amounts of saturated fat and sodium to the preschoolers’ diets. Along with bacon, poultry, butter, cakes and cookies, such foods represent 70% of saturated fat intake for preschoolers.

When it comes to snacking habits, the analysis also revealed that when children snack away from home they consume an extra 50 calories daily from snacks (including sweet ones like cookies, candy and fruit drinks) and drink less milk.

According to the lead author of the study, Kathleen Reidy, Dr. PH, RD, Head, Nutrition Science, Nestle Infant Nutrition, “Data from FITS reveals that, as early as 12 to 24 months, children begin to develop some unhealthy dietary patterns that may contribute to childhood obesity.” While she encourages breastfeeding as the best way to provide infants with ample amounts of much needed nutrients, findings from FITS 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.

“Because dietary guidance is so critical in the “first 1,000 days of life” and because the nutrients a child receives during this period can impact growth and development as well as health later in life, being exposed to healthy foods early on is vital for all children,” says Reidy. She adds, “This is also a critical period during which food and flavor preferences develop.”

To help parents help their young children improve the quality of their diets and develop healthier eating habits, Reidy suggests the following simple changes:

Make a milk switch. Since milk is key in children’s diets and a top contributor of important nutrients including protein, calcium and vitamins A, D, B12, thiamin and riboflavin, rather than limit milk, instead offer appropriate amounts of low-fat and nonfat options.

Think of snacks as mini-meals. Snacks should be considered mini-meals, and parents and caregivers should offer healthy foods that contribute nutrition to a child’s diet—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat yogurt and dairy foods.

Go lean. Replace foods high in saturated fat with lean meats, low-fat dairy products and foods high in healthier fats such as avocado, fish and those made with olive, safflower and canola oils.

Go lower with sodium. Offer children more foods naturally low in or made with little or no salt or sodium, such as fruits and vegetables. Offering fewer or smaller portions of higher sodium foods such as hot dogs, lunch meat and chicken nuggets and look for lower-sodium meat options when possible.

Give them water. Instead of sugar-sweetened beverages, offer water to stay hydrated and to allow more room (calorie-wise) for nutritious options.

Offer produce each time they eat. Include small amounts of fruits and vegetables at each meal and snack. When you offer mixed dishes, also offer a serving of vegetables on the side.
How much do you know about toddler nutrition?

Nutrition Labels: 3 Things To Avoid
Nutrition Labels: 3 Things To Avoid
Nutrition Labels: 3 Things To Avoid

How do you help instill better eating habits in your infants and children?

Image of cute baby sitting in a high feeding chair biting on delicious freshly cooked broccoli via shutterstock.

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  1. [...] If the new book The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Time has made you change your child’s plate and offer her fatty foods without abandon, I urge to you to think again. Although I recommend an all-foods-can-fit approach to eating and feeding my children—an approach that some registered dietitian nutrition colleagues support and others loathe—it makes little sense to disregard current science-based advice to limit saturated fatty acids. [...]