baby eating broccoli

Establishing healthy lifestyle choices begins in the first 12 months.

As one of the Nurse Consultants for YWCA Rockford, I spend the year helping childcare providers and parents, new and experienced, address a variety of seasonal health and safety topics. As the new school year approaches and we consider the flu, sore throats, lice… there is an ongoing topic that is extremely important to our children’s well-being, living a healthy life. Changing the pattern of the American child’s lifestyle has become a pressing and daunting task. With the advent of technology at the fingertips of every child, the lifestyles of children in America has adversely changed over the past three decades. “Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. The percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 18% in 2012,” (CDC, Apr 24, 2015).  If we are going begin to reverse this detrimental trend, we’re going to have to look at how and when it begins.

In her New York Times article, Catherine Saint Louis states from a series of published nutritional studies, that “efforts to improve what children eat should begin before they even learn to walk.”   With the most recent studies focusing on children’s preferences being set at an even younger age than we once thought, our trainings work to inform and educate providers and parents that offering highly nutritional food from infancy through adolescence is the key to reversing childhood obesity trends.

As children grow, it is easy to use food as a reward for good behavior or to withhold favorite foods as punishment. This sets up a negative pattern for the rest of a child’s life as they begin relating food to something other than nutrition. Children should be taught that food is fuel for a healthy body, not something that they receive or don’t receive for positive or negative behavior.

Eleven studies of the childhood food preferences of 1,500 children, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, suggest that the quality of a child’s diet is set in the first twelve months of life. This is information that is a huge game changer for parents. Armed with this information, we can be vigilant to avoid offering foods high in processed sugar – or processed foods at all – and to keep the number of vegetables to fruits at a 2:1 ratio; offering more vegetables than fruits for the first year of life. Infant foods such as pudding could set a preference for the taste of sugar which will last for a child’s entire life span. Even juice of any kind should be avoided in the first twelve months of life.

In the future posts on this issue of healthy lifestyles in early childhood, we will explore the many aspects that affect the lives of our children as they grow. Lifestyle is not merely nutrition; it is a kaleidoscope of issues that work together to encourage healthy adolescents and adults. Through the choices that we make with and for our children, we shape their lives for decades to come.