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Junk Food Habits Start Before Our Kids Even Turn One, Says New Study

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

Babies are wonderful for an endless variety of reasons. One of the exciting ones is because they’re a pure, wide open, blank slate. They don’t have bad habits to break, they don’t have fears to undo, and they don’t have behaviors to correct. And most exciting for me as a dietitian (and many parents getting ready to feed their kids real food for the first time) is that they’re completely open to new foods, eating habits, and have a fresh start for following a healthy diet.

It should be easy, right? Feed babies vegetables and fruits, limit their sugar intake, expose them to a whole variety of foods, and they should be set to go with great eating habits as they grow up. You’d think it’d be as simple as that, but a look at the data shows that we’re not giving our American kids such a great chance at health. Forget teenagers that make their own decisions and choose pizza and soda over salads and granola, or even picky preschoolers who only want chicken nuggets and demand ketchup on everything. Believe it or not, the root of poor eating habits starts as young as the age of 1.

A recent look at the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), a huge program of studies that looks at health and nutrition, shows appalling data. It’s no secret that the “Standard American Diet” (appropriately abbreviated SAD) is just that – sad. In general, as a nation, our diets are abysmal, despite education and programs like the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign. We’re making progress, but not much, and certainly not fast enough.

I’m more than aware that the struggle when it comes to kids and healthy foods can be just that – a struggle – but it’s one worth fighting. I have a 4-year-old who will eat quinoa and avocado without a second look, but also wants fish sticks and pancakes for every meal. I’ve done my best to limit his sugar and “junk food” intake, but even at 4 he’s exposed to it in multiple environments. (It took him all of one baseball game to know there’d be a sugary drink and a snack at the end of it.) It’s not enough for me to model healthy behaviors at home; he needs to see it from his peers as well. But broadly speaking, when his peers’ favorite “vegetable” is potatoes covered in ketchup, I’m losing the battle before we’ve even gotten a chance to fight it.

The NHANES data showed that not only are potatoes really the most commonly eaten vegetable – specifically in the form of chips and fries – but that brownies, cakes, and other sweets are showing up in kids’ diets by the age of 9 months. Chips and soda start appearing around 12 months. Half of kids’ fruit intake comes in the form of juice and only 30% are eating vegetables at all. The harsh reality is that these poor diet exposures start showing up as soon as breastfeeding stops. Seeing as many babies start solids around the 4 to 6 month mark, that’s a pretty early age to be introduced to such a “SAD” diet. You know what that means, right? It’s not the kids. It’s the parents.

It’s us. We’re the ones that need to be advocating for our kids’ health. We’re the ones that need to be offering the best choices and role modeling positive eating behaviors. We need to stop succumbing to peer pressure as adults and giving our kids cupcakes on each and every arbitrary school occasion. We need to show our kids that oranges and strawberries and yes, broccoli, can be delicious. Young kids don’t need nutrition lessons, they just need the opportunity to know what healthy tastes like. To know that they can feel strong and energized.

And we’re the only ones who can show them. So let’s start with ourselves; setting the right example and fueling our diets with the foods we want our kids to grow up on. Infancy and early childhood is a precious time for many reasons, but remember that blank slate – this is when true habits and preferences become ingrained. The blueprint is ready and waiting for us; let’s make sure it’s one we want them to keep.

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