I have long wondered about the concept of “kids meals” in restaurants. Our kids need nourishing and satisfying food just like we do, but in smaller portions. We all know that fruits and vegetables, healthy grains and proteins are nourishing and adding spices or herbs adds flavor, which is more satisfying. So why are our kids left to choose among the fatty, salty, bland chicken nuggets, mac & cheese, grilled cheese and burgers? According to the new National Health and Examination Survey (NHANES) the problem goes much deeper. The study shows that infants are developing unbalanced eating patterns as early as 9 months of age and by 12 months, they are consuming adult levels of sodium and added sugars. This was a detailed national study, over the course of 11 years, looking at kids 0-24 months. What they found was absolutely shocking and terrifying to me as a mother – as infants are moving from baby food to whole food, they are eating more French fries, sugar sweetened beverages and sweets and barely consuming any vegetables and whole grains. Since childhood obesity is a growing problem, this kind of diet from early age is disastrous. Many parents may not realize their babies are starting off on this path, so I talked to Nicole Silber, MS, RD, Pediatric Dietitian and Beech-Nut Nutrition consultant, to answer some lingering questions and get some ideas that can guide parents transition babies into healthy solid foods.
What is driving higher sodium and sugar?
The NHANES study revealed that kids are consuming over 1500 mg of sodium daily, while the Institute of Medicine recommends no more than 1000 for kids 1-3 and adult numbers have been lowered too to 1500. What’s worse, the sodium is coming primarily from processed foods – hot dogs, crackers, cured meats. Ms. Silber believes the main reason for this unhealthy diet is lack of guidelines for kids 0-2. “Most recommendations start at 2+”, she says,
“parents have good intentions but they don’t realize how much kids are consuming.”
There obviously needs to be a standard for those infants and babies, so they don’t quickly transition from mother’s milk or formula to fries and fruit punch. Whether it’s a governmental agency or not, there should be a guideline for parents. Parents need to be educated about the value of vegetables, in particular, and variety of those, not limiting it just to potatoes and preferably not in a fried form. Of course, part of the problem is that parents are also overeating salty, sugary foods but more on that later.
Nicole believes this infant behavior develops more after 1 year old. Getting used to processed food, kids develop a pattern of craving this kind of food, high in sodium, added sugar and synthetic flavors to cover the bland tasteless food, they keep asking for it. A popular summer hot dog may be actually a source of excess sodium and additives kids should not be consuming at any age. I found it simply disturbing to see cured meats and processed foods in babies’ diets. We are supposed to give them a good start, nutrition that can nourish and satisfy but are we doing that? Of course, a hot dog is easy. Parents are often in a rush, so fast food becomes a matter of convenience. I asked Ms. Silber what is a better alternative for fast meals. She agrees that on the go foods have become a staple but whole foods are easy. How easy is it to slice a tomato or an avocado? Kids are not born picky, they have to get exposed to flavors, so they know what they like.
As for sugar, the NHANES study says 12 month olds are getting over 5 teaspoons of sugar daily, 5 times the norm for preschoolers according to the American Heart Association. Kids love sweet treats, nobody will deny it. Should they have them often? Ms. Silber suggests that if you introduce the sugary foods first and often, that’s what the babies’ palate will be. So focus on the veggies first. Seeing fruity drinks, cookies, sodas and brownies as the main source of sugar is not surprising but we can change this cycle. Let’s start with the simple yogurt. Sweet yogurts are very popular with kids and they have a lot of added sugar. Ms. Silber says we should go back to the source – start with a base of plain yogurt – it’s simple and nutritious – and just add berries, fruit, or baby food. There are many other ways to sweeten the yogurt, for example, including with baby food with no added sugar, mango for example. And many fruits and vegetables are naturally sweeter than others, like bananas and dates, carrots and beets. In fact, babies that were given mostly baby food at 6-8 months had better diets.
What can parents do now?
1. Be a good role model. Ms. Silber recommends that if parents give babies food, other than baby food, they should look for good food, same healthy food that they eat. Perhaps, for parents it’s a reminder to treat themselves well and eat a healthy nutrient-dense diet. Look at MyPlate for specific recommendations, but make sure at least a quarter of your plate is vegetables, a quarter whole grains, the rest protein and fruits. Look for whole food, close to the source (apple vs. apple sauce), and use variety. Adults don’t eat enough veggies, so how can they expect the kids to? So make a change, if you haven’t already, and make your nutrition count.
2. Remember that eating is a sensory experience. If you give kids bland, flavorless foods, they won’t be excited about food and pickiness will begin. Silber encourages the parents to flavor the food, use spices like cumin, explore the flavors of avocado. Baby foods are picking up on that – Beech-Nut has a great flavor of Butternut squash and sweet corn. Use beets, carrots, pomegranate, pear, pineapple, avocado – basically broaden their taste palate early on. From the first bite, add flavor for babies, don’t be afraid to season.
3. Get an early start. Eating habits of babies turn into eating habits of little kids, says Ms. Silber. Get them used to the flavorful, nutritious meals early on and they will continue those habits. Childhood obesity is at an all-time high and we have enough information to curb it now, so let’s start with our babies, so they grow up to be healthy kids and adults.
4. Not every baby food is the same. Look for foods that are not diluted – look at the list of ingredients where items are listed in order – the earlier in the list of ingredients, the more of that item in the food.
5. What about treats? Over-restricting has its disadvantages, says Ms. Silber. Try to limit added sugar as it forms into a pattern that grows. And set boundaries – sweets treats should not be a daily norm but rather a once or twice weekly treat.
6. You know how they say it takes a village to raise a child? You absolutely need a full family approach – if your child eats a certain way, parents eat that too. If you do overly salty and sweet foods, limit the frequency. Practical solutions work for all.
7. Most importantly, engage the child in a dialog. Be a good role model, discuss what you’re making, what you’re shopping for. Make food more exciting – different shapes, cooked differently (boiled, roasted, steamed, pan seared, etc), participate in cooking and shopping together.