Infants as young as 7 months drink soda when they should have breast milk or formula. Toddlers eat French fries more than any other vegetable. And many children go an entire day without seeing a piece of fruit or green vegetable.
These and other findings from a new national survey are an indictment of parents' nutritional guidance, experts say. Instead of enticing children to try a wide variety of nutritious foods, parents are defaulting to sweets and empty calories.
Although nutritionists and physicians have long known that many children eat unhealthy foods, the young age of the children in the survey -- and the extent of the poor nutrition -- were alarming.
The survey, based on interviews with parents and caregivers of 3,000 randomly selected children ages 4 to 24 months old, was presented recently at the American Dietetic Assn.'s annual conference. It found that by the time they're 19 to 24 months old, most children are having a dessert, sugary drink or salty snack such as potato chips at least once a day.
Children in low-income families who get food assistance from the federal Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, program fare even worse, even though the program provides dairy products, cereals and fresh vegetables. On the day of the survey, 41% of those toddlers had no fruit. And overall, WIC recipients drank more sweetened beverages than infants and toddlers not in the program.
On the bright side, youngsters are getting enough vitamins and minerals from what they're putting in their mouths each day, so nutritional deficiencies are unlikely. But the excess salt, sugar, fat and calories at such a tender age set children up for a lifetime of health problems such as obesity and diabetes. Not only does poor nutrition develop into poor eating habits, but also it eventually will lead to weight gain.
If nutritious food is put in front of a child, that child will eat appropriately. But "if the choices in front of them are unhealthy, it's a very different story," said study coauthor Kristy Hendricks, an associate professor of family medicine and community health at Tufts University School of Medicine.
According to the survey, conducted for baby food manufacturer Gerber Products Co., 18% to 33% of infants and toddlers age 7 to 24 months eat no vegetables, and 23% to 33% consume no fruits in the first 15 to 18 months of life.
"There's nothing wrong with potatoes, but it's not the only veggie, and fried isn't the best," Hendricks said. "I would give things like other soft-cooked vegetables that children like, like sweet potatoes, cooked carrots."
Dr. Thomas N. Robinson, a Stanford University pediatrician and obesity prevention researcher, said parents frequently tell him that their children will eat only French fries, that they don't like vegetables. "Who's giving them French fries? Who's giving them McDonald's? They don't drive yet," Robinson said. "If kids are eating these foods, it's because parents are giving them to them."
Some parents say their toddlers drink juice and sodas because they don't like milk, he said. "The appropriate response is that it doesn't matter if they don't like it. It's up to the parents to set the limits."
Robinson believes that small children can be retrained to eat properly. "If they are switched to a diet that's high in fruits and vegetables and lower in saturated fats, sweets and calories, then their preferences will reflect the exposure to those new foods."
That's not easy. According to the survey, many parents attempt to get children to try new foods once or twice. But other studies have shown it can take eight to 15 attempts to get a child to accept a new food.
Kids' poor nutrition wasn't the only problem exposed by the survey. The survey found that 29% of infants ate solid food before the recommended age of 4 to 6 months; 17% of infants drank juices before the recommended age of 6 months; and 20% of infants drank cow's milk before the recommended age of 12 months.
Starting a baby too early on juices and solid foods displaces the breast milk or formula that provide infants with complete nutrition, Hendricks said. Solid foods and cow's milk can stress incompletely developed kidney and digestive systems and make infants more susceptible to allergies, she said, not to mention that their mouths aren't ready for chewing.