The health and wellbeing of children ages 2-11 years of age is important not only for their lives, but for their futures and the future outcomes of society. According to data from 2011, children make up approximately 24% of the United States population and this percentage is expected to remain stable through the year 2050. The health status of children is now receiving more attention due to the growing direct and indirect costs of healthcare. When children adopt healthy eating and physical activity behaviors, it also promotes cognitive and academic success, ensures normal growth and development, and reduces the risk of adult health problems. Instilling healthy behaviors during this early stage of development lays the foundation for a long and healthy life.
Research is showing that chronic diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes are influenced by childhood behaviors. Having children participate in regular physical activities and consume adequate amounts of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and lean proteins, while reducing the intake of saturated fats, refined sugar, and sodium as essential for the prevention of these diseases. According the Evidence Analysis Library (EAL), school based interventions and nutritional counseling are effective in improving markers of obesity and reducing risk factors for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
Unfortunately portion sizes and calorie intake has increased significantly from both at home and away from home since 1977. Children now days are consuming most of their calories from salty snacks, soft drinks, pizzas, burgers, and French fries. The recommendations outlined by the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) are rarely met for children 2 to 11 years old in the United States. Children in this age group are overconsuming calories, saturated fats, and sodium, while under consuming important nutrients. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recognized dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, potassium as a public health concern due to frequent under consumption. According to NHANES data, the overall quality of diet did not improve between 2001-2002 and 2007-2008. The failure to achieve the outlined DRI recommendations accounts for nutrient deficiencies and an overall poor diet.
There are several factors that contribute to the eating patterns of children 2 to 11 years old. These include the influence of the parents and family members, where meals are eaten, food preferences, and meal frequencies. Parents are very influential in the dietary practices of their children. The parents are responsible for providing food, measuring portion sizes, and determining how frequently meals are eaten throughout the day. Children eating meals at their home with family seems to offer to greatest benefits for healthy eating. Fruits and vegetables are usually consumed in greater quantities when meals are shared with the family. Parents can also influence a child’s food preference through repeated exposure to foods. To assist children in trying new foods, it is recommended that these foods are offered at least 8 to 10 times while providing positive encouragement. Consistent meal frequencies are also important for healthy eating patterns in children. Children that habitually skip breakfast are more like to performance worse in school when compared to children that eat breakfast consistently.
Many children from the United States overconsume total calories, sodium, refined sugar and saturated fats while not meet the minimum requirements for fruit, vegetable, grains, and dairy. This unhealthy way of eating is contributing to the rise in chronic diseases that are suffered later in life. The main variable to that is consistent with all the factors influencing the eating behaviors and patterns of children are the parents. It is essential that parents act as positive role models and teach their children healthy eating habits.
Ogata, B. N., & Hayes, D. (2014). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: nutrition guidance for healthy children ages 2 to 11 years. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 114(8), 1257-1276.