Preschoolers' diet quality improved marginally between 1977 and 1998 but they are still getting too much added sugar and juice and not enough fruits and vegetables a recent study shows.
Sibylle Kranz, Penn State assistant professor of nutritional sciences, led the study of changes in diet quality of American preschoolers. She says, "Our study shows that preschoolers' diets are moving in the right direction but still can be improved. Children with healthier diets are less likely to be sick or overweight and they are more likely to continue healthy eating habits when they become adults."
The study is in the September issue of the American Journal of Public Health in a paper, Changes in Diet Quality of American Preschoolers Between 1977 and 1998. Kranz's co-authors are Anna Maria Siega-Riz, associate professor of maternal and child health, and Amy H. Herring, assistant professor of biostatistics, both at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
The researchers rated the preschoolers' diets based on the dietary intake recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics and other authorities. They found that, over the last 21 years, the main changes in preschoolers' intakes were that the percentage of total calories from fat and saturated fat decreased and the consumption of added sugar as a percentage of total calories increased. Servings of grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy products, juice and iron also increased.
The diets of 2- and 3-year-olds were significantly different from 4- and 5-year-olds, with the younger children having healthier diets. Kranz notes, "As children get older and move away from parental control of their intake, they tend to choose less healthy options."
Iron intake increased over the 21-year period indicating that, based on dietary data, iron intakes appear sufficient and iron deficiency should not be a problem among preschoolers.
The authors write, "Although our index indicates more healthy food choices, overall energy consumption has increased, which might be a contributor to the increasing prevalence of childhood obesity."
The diets increased about 200 calories for both the children with the least good diets as well as those with the best. Carbohydrates are the possible source of these calories, Kranz says. The main sources of sugar in 1998 were candy, sugar and honey added at the table, fruit drinks, soda, cookies and cakes, chocolate milk, ice cream and other desserts.
The authors note that "Targeting diet quality to improve childhood obesity might entail messages to limit intake of certain foods and food groups rather than focusing solely on increasing consumption of certain nutrients."
Since consumption of fruit juices and added sugar have significantly increased, Kranz notes that these areas represent a potential target for improvement, especially since other researchers have found that increased intake of juice puts children at risk of deficiency of milk, yogurt, and cheese.
The study was supported by a Small Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, and a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through a subcontract with the University of North Carolina and the University of North Carolina Institute of Nutrition, Children's Healthy Life Skills Initiative.