Early Childhood Policy Focus: Healthy Eating and Physical Activity

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Child Trends

This brief analyzes data and current research on the nutritional and exercise habits of children under the age of 6 years. Several factors affect these habits including the choices made by parents and children, public policies and financial restrictions (which include the availability, accessibility and cost of healthier food options).

According to the most recent Healthy Eating Index, which is the United States Department of Agriculture’s measure of diet quality, children (ages 2 to 5) scored an average of 60 (out of a possible 100) points for their healthy eating level.

Children’s diets were the healthiest in terms of their consumption of total grains, total fruits and milk. On the other hand, they were the worst in terms of dark green vegetables, orange vegetables, legumes and saturated facts. These findings show that children need to increase their consumption of vitamin-rich foods, nutrient-dense foods (including those low in fat and ones that do not contain added sugars) and decrease their intake of sodium, high calorie foods and saturated fat.

Research shows that bad or insufficient diets can jeopardize children’s development, threaten their readiness for school and have lifelong effects on adult productivity. However, adequate consumption of important nutrients and vitamins (most notably Vitamins A, C, D, and E, as well as magnesium and phosphorous) is critical for normal growth and development and learning. Young children who do not get enough vitamins and nutrients might be negatively affected in terms of how well and how much they learn.

Researchers note that the wide availability and variety of passive entertainment media options for children (including television, video games and computers) may be negatively affecting the level and amount of children’s physical activity.

The study notes that snacking and skipping meals can also result in weight gain and nutritional deficiencies.  More than one in eight children have reported rarely or never eating breakfast, and one in four skip breakfast at least some of the time. Snacking is associated with nutrient-poor calories, because the foods children report eating often tend to offer little in the way of minerals, protein and vitamins and are also usually relatively high in sugar and fats.

In addition, a recent Oregon study of 2-year-olds found that nearly 20 percent spent more than two hours on a typical day watching television or videos, despite the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) recommendation that no more than one to two hours of “quality programming” a day should be watched by 2-year-olds.

Another recent study showed that children whose “screen time” is limited, who regularly eat dinner with family members and who get adequate sleep were significantly less likely to be obese.

For the full, free nine-page report click here.