We all know good nutrition is a cornerstone to children’s development, but new research suggests U.S. babies are lacking key an adequate diet during their formative years. In fact, only 40 percent of babies aged 0-24 months are eating vegetables, and most get only about one-third the recommended amount of whole grains, according to new research presented at Experimental Biology.
What’s more, as infants transition from baby food to whole food at around nine months, there is a significant increase in sweets, salty snacks and sugar-sweetened beverages. By 12 months, infants and toddlers are consuming more than 5 teaspoons of added sugar and more than 1,500 mg of sodium a day.
The study was commissioned by Beech-Nut Nutrition Co. to better understand early childhood eating patterns and raise awareness of the need for more efforts that support parents in helping their babies build an authentic, joyful relationship with real food. Researchers analyzed 11 years of food and beverage consumption data among babies 0-24 months in the United States. The analysis also included data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).
“Mounting evidence shows that what children eat in the first two years of life is critical to obesity prevention and long-term good health, which makes what we've found in this analysis that much more concerning," said Victor Fulgoni III, Ph.D., senior vice president of Nutrition Impact and lead researcher on the NHANES analysis. “It is clear we need strategies that squarely focus on that critical transition period."
According to the findings, intake of fruits, vegetables and whole grains increase during the 6-8 month “baby food" window, but infants’ diets start to become imbalanced around the 9-month mark. By 12 months more than 60 percent of babies are getting fruit (half comes from 100 percent juice, followed by bananas and apples); less than 30 percent of babies are getting vegetables, and the primary source is potatoes (whole/mashed); by 23 months, the primary source is potatoes in the forms of French fries and potato chips (by comparison, leafy greens make up 1% of consumption); close to 30 percent of babies are drinking sugar-sweetened beverages (fruit drinks and soft drinks); by 23 months that increases to almost 45 percent; almost 40 percent of babies are eating brownies and cookies; nearly 40% of babies are eating crackers and salty snacks; primary sources of sodium are hot dogs, cured meats, crackers, cheese and mixed pasta dishes; and primary sources of added sugars are fruit drinks, soft drinks, cookies and brownies, yogurt and ready-to-eat cereals.
A comprehensive review of more than 50 peer-reviewed, published studies also presented at Experimental Biology, found a likely relationship between early infant feeding and obesity risk. The studies showed the top sources of calories among infants and toddlersafter milk and formula100-percent juice and sugar-sweetened beverages.
The Infant Feeding Practice Study II3 showed children who drink sugar-sweetened beverages, such as soda or sugar-added juice, during the first year of life are twice as likely to drink these types of beverages at 6 years of age; and children who rarely eat fruits and vegetables during the first year of life are more likely to continue this pattern of rarely eating fruits and vegetables at 6 years of age.
“Some of the data that really stuck out to me was that babies do get a more balanced diet with baby food, but there is still work to be done there as well," said pediatric nutrition specialist Nicole Silber, RD, CSP, CLC. "I see an opportunity to extend that 6- to 8-month time period to really focus on getting babies to enjoy, even begin to seek, fruits and vegetables with vibrant colors and flavors so that they build a long-term relationship with these foods."
Currently, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans begins at age 2, and efforts are underway to include babies 0-24 months in the 2020 Guidelines. Absent of these, Silber stresses the importance of helping to guide parents in the right direction in any way possible.
“Parents always have their children's best interests at heart, but figuring out what to feed babies can be challenging," Silber said. “We need to get more education and creative ways to help parents be successful in building their babies' love of real, nutrient-rich foods."