Study documents trends in food and beverage consumption by infants and toddlers

May 9, 2017

Toddlers in the U.S. are eating more french fries than vegetables.

That fact is among the findings of a new study published in the journal Pediatrics by Gandarvaka Miles, a doctoral student in epidemiology at The University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. Miles and the study’s other authors call for policy guidance and education for parents and caretakers to help infants and toddlers achieve healthy diets.

Gandarvaka Miles

Gandarvaka Miles

The study also notes that early eating patterns have a long-term impact upon diet and health, but young children’s food habits have been understudied. The researchers used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES)  to describe the diets of 2,359 infants and toddlers, from birth to age 23 months, during the years 2005 to 2012.

Overall, the authors found that the consumption of vegetables among infants and toddlers was lower than desired, especially among non-Hispanic blacks. The percentage of 6- to 23-month-olds consuming any fruit or vegetable remained unchanged (between 91 percent and 96 percent) during the study period.

However, the proportion of older infants and young toddlers consuming both fruits and vegetables on a typical day was much lower – 52.6 percent of 6- to 11-month olds and 57.8 percent of 12- to 23-month-olds had reported intake within both food groups.

Also of concern was that most toddlers consumed more white potatoes (often in the form of French fries) than dark, leafy vegetables.

While juice consumption declined among non-Hispanic whites and blacks in the 6- to 11-month age group, the percentage of Mexican-American infants between birth and age five months consuming any breast milk also decreased from 50.5 percent during 2005-2008 to 36.4 percent during 2009-2012.

Most juices add unneeded calories to a child’s diet, and breast milk is a proven way to boost immunity and improve nutrition in infants. Yet, infant formula remained the milk type most commonly consumed by young infants, with only about one-third of studied infants younger than five months being breastfed. Additionally, more than 50 percent of all young toddlers still consumed sweetened beverages.

Trends in food group consumption may have implications for future trends in childhood overweight and obesity. In the study, the authors also found that the proportion of children ages birth to 23 months falling below the fifth percentile of weight-for-length decreased during the study period, while the proportion falling above the 85th percentile increased—a sign that fewer babies were poorly nourished, but perhaps a warning flag about a trend toward obesity.

Despite improvements in infants’ and young children’s diets resulting from changes in nutrition policy and better education, further changes are called for, the study finds. The findings are particularly helpful in light of the upcoming 2020 edition of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for America, which will include guidance for children under age two for the first time since the initial publication of the report in 1980.

“Dietary habits in the first few years of life help set the stage for food preferences later in life,” Miles said. “It’s therefore important that parents get the education and support they need to start infants and toddlers off on the right track.”

Anna Maria SiegaRiz, PhD, professor of public health sciences at the University of Virginia (Charlottesville), co-authored the article.


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Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu