Nutrition is a fundamental component of health, and establishing healthy eating habits early in life is critical to ensuring lifelong healthy dietary patterns. Throughout their childhood, pediatric patients develop their eating habits, food preferences, and other lifestyle factors that can determine the state of their physical and mental health and long-term outcomes.
Research has shown that children who eat nutrient-rich foods as part of a well-balanced diet have more energy, stronger immune systems, and fewer diseases than those with poor eating habits. Unfortunately, present statistics reveal that millions of children across the nation are not meeting their nutrient requirements, indicating an alarming negative trend in pediatric nutrition with severe future implications.
Current State of Children’s Nutrition
In the United States, childhood obesity is a critical problem affecting 1 in 5 children and adolescents, with rates tripling over the last three decades. At the same time, over 11 million children live in “food insecure” homes, which include households with low food security and very low food security. Whereas some children struggle with weight management, others suffer from hunger and live in food deserts – areas with limited access to affordable, healthy food options.
“Empty calories from added sugars and solid fats contribute to 40% of daily calories for children and adolescents age 2–18 years—affecting the overall quality of their diets. Approximately half of these empty calories come from six sources: soda, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, grain desserts, pizza, and whole milk,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines in its latest report on childhood nutrition. These foods are often more cost-effective than healthier alternatives, and cost has been reported as a key element in dietary decision-making, particularly in low-income communities and food deserts.
Healthy Childhood Nutrition
Proper nutrition and healthy eating habits are essential for children’s growth, development, and overall well-being. A balanced diet also helps children maintain a healthy weight into adulthood, reducing their risk of developing cardiovascular disease or type 2 diabetes later in life.
In the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, nutrition experts recommend the following components as part of a healthy eating pattern for children over two years of age:
- A variety of fruits and vegetables.
- Whole grains.
- Fat-free and low-fat dairy products.
- A variety of protein foods.
Recommendations also include limiting calories from solid fats and added sugars and reducing sodium intake.
Unfortunately, most children and adolescents do not follow the recommendations outlined in the Dietary Guidelines, and a recent national survey quantified just how poor the current state of childhood nutrition is.
Parents on Children’s Eating Patterns
The C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health surveyed a national sample of parents of children between 1 and 10 years old about their view of their child’s diet and supplement use. Nearly 50% of parents reported an issue with their child’s diet, and only 52% believe their child eats a well-balanced diet overall.
Some of the issues reported by parents included the child being a picky eater (35%), low fruit and vegetable intake (31%), limited consumption of specific vitamins and minerals (13%), and fiber deficiency (9%).
Over 50% of the surveyed parents agreed that getting their child to eat a well-balanced diet was difficult, while 47% agreed that feeding a healthy diet to a child is expensive.
Parents on Dietary Supplement Use
According to the 2022 Mott Poll Report, the majority of parents have given their child dietary supplements at some point in time, and up to 50% said their child regularly takes a supplement. Reported supplements included multivitamins (78%), probiotics (45%), Omega 3 (22%), specific vitamins (44%), and specific minerals (25%).
Among participants who had given their child supplements, 80% reported choosing products made specifically for children, yet only 43% discussed using supplements with the child’s health care provider. Among participants who felt that their child does not eat a well-balanced diet, 51% reported regularly giving their child dietary supplements. Interestingly, among parents who said their child is eating a well-balanced diet, the prevalence of regular supplement use was slightly higher at 53%.
The Mott Poll Report also found that parents in higher-income households were more likely than parents in lower-income households to regularly give their child a supplement, use a supplement made specifically for children, and speak to their child’s health care provider about supplement use.
Healthy eating habits and dietary supplement use in children is a topic that demands increased pediatric specialist attention and public awareness. Establishing proper nutrition patterns in childhood can significantly benefit long-term health outcomes and promote lifelong healthy eating.