Establishing Healthy Eating Habits

By Dr. Bailey Alford

Summer is in full swing, the days are longer, and children everywhere are enjoying more time outdoors. Running, jumping, swimming, and riding bikes are just a few activities popular this time of year and are a great way for children to stay healthy and active. Physical activity is just one part of a healthy lifestyle with a nutritious diet being another crucial component.

1 in 3 children in America are overweight or obese. Fast food, processed foots, and sugar-containing beverages are largely to blame. Appropriate nutrition for children is largely based on their age and associated caloric needs:

Newborn to 6 months—It’s all about the milk

For infants, complete nutrition is provided by either breastmilk or formula. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends delaying the introduction of solid foods until 4-6 months old. In fact, recent studies have shown that introducing solid foods before the age of 4 months can lead to a higher risk of obesity as a toddler and young child. Even something as simple as water can be detrimental to the health of an infant younger than 6 months old. Giving free water to infants is dangerous and can cause rapid changes of sodium in the blood leading to seizures. Under 6 months, breastmilk or formula is all your child needs.

6 months to 1 year—Introduction of solid foods

Pediatricians are often asked by parents how they know when their infant is ready for solid foods and which foods they should offer their baby first. Developmental milestones to look for that signal that your infant may be ready for solid foods includes the ability to sit upright with support, good head control, and interest in bringing hands/objects to the mouth. Although most parents choose to start with iron-fortified rice cereal or oatmeal mixed with either breastmilk or formula, it is also appropriate to start with pureed single fruits or vegetables. Whatever you decide to introduce to your baby first, stick with introducing one new food every 2-3 days so you can monitor for any undesired side effects like rashes or upset tummies. It is important to remember that even though infants are getting solid foods, breastmilk or formula should still be the main component of their diet until the age of 1.

Toddlers and Preschoolers—The emergence of the picky eater

After the age of 1, the diet changes from consisting of mainly milk with food as a bonus to a more typical 3 meals a day with milk as a beverage. Toddlers can be transitioned to whole milk, which is recommended until the age of 2 at which time low-fat milk is recommended. It is not uncommon for their appetite to fluctuate as they go through growth spurts, having hearty appetites some days and barely touching their food the next. It is easy for toddlers to get stuck in a routine of chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese but it is important to limited processed foods and continue to offer fruits and vegetables at every meal. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 4 ounces of juice per day. It is important that toddlers don’t drink their calories, which can leave less room for more nutritious foods.

School-age children—Limiting sugar intake

School-age children are often eating 2 major meals of the day at school. Healthy food options for school lunches have been improving with school health initiatives over recent years. The important thing to remember for this age group is limiting sugar intake. One easy way to accomplish this is to make water the beverage of choice. Juice, soda, sports drinks, and sweet tea are popular with children especially if they have access to it at home but are made up of sugar and empty calories. Water should be the norm, and sugar-containing beverages a sweet treat on special occasions.

Pre-teens and Teens—The importance of family dinners

With emerging puberty, teenagers need more calories to support their growing, changing bodies. With all the social-emotional changes occurring as well, family dinners where everyone comes together to share a meal without the distraction of electronic devices is a great way to stay connected and offer healthy food options. Energy drinks should be avoided as they contain dangerous amounts of caffeine and sugar that have caused cases of sudden cardiac arrest in teenagers with excessive consumption.

Next month’s column will focus on tips to get your children ready for back to school.