Obesity has reached epidemic proportions in America. Even more startling is that it is affecting record numbers of children and adolescents.

The best strategy for combating this epidemic is prevention. Thus, the development of healthy habits must begin when children are very young.

The path to obesity often begins as early as infancy and toddlerhood; by the age of 2, children are forming habits that can make them more – or less – likely to be overweight.

Lifestyle habits developed during childhood often become lifelong habits. More specifically, a child begins to establish eating patterns early in life, and these habits tend to persist long-term. In addition, overweight toddlers and preschoolers do not necessarily outgrow their “baby fat” and are more likely to be overweight as older children. Therefore, positive eating habits must be introduced early.

Limiting Sugar and Salt

The regular consumption of high-sugar, high-salt, and/or high-fat foods can lead to immediate health and weight issues among babies and young children. Of more concern is that the eating habits established during these early stages may also have serious long-term consequences.

When we serve sugary, salty and otherwise unhealthy foods to babies, toddlers and young children, they develop a preference for these foods and will insist on a steady supply of highly-flavorful treats as they grow older. And not just for dessert, but for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack-time as well. This, in turn, sets them up for the development of obesity and chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

It is critical that infants and young children consume a wholesome, healthy diet every day. Babies under 1 year of age should never be served foods containing sugar or salt. Exposure to these ingredients should be extremely limited for toddlers up to 2 years old, and closely monitored even among 3- to 5-year-olds.

If he is not exposed to unhealthy foods, he will be unaware of them and gladly accept more nutritious items. Not only are sugar and salt harmful for kids’ little bodies, but they quickly acquire a taste for sugary and salty foods – preferences that will stay with them for a lifetime. Establishing healthy habits starts the day a child is born.

Early Exposure to Healthy Foods

In order to instill healthy eating habits in children, it is critical to expose infants (older than six months of age), toddlers, and preschoolers to the taste and texture of a variety of nutritious foods, including fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

When youngsters are served nourishing wholesome foods, they are more likely to eat these types of foods as they get older. For example, babies and toddlers who are served a variety of fruits and vegetables will likely eat a wider array of these health-promoting foods as they grow up and begin making their own food choices.

A child’s willingness to try and accept new food flavors is influenced by her feeding experiences early in life. Oftentimes, babies (older than six months) and young children need to be exposed to a new food multiple times before they will accept it – sometimes as many as eight to 10 times.

The more a child is exposed to a certain food, the more likely she is to try and accept it. This has even been observed in 5- to 7-year-olds. Therefore, consistently exposing young children to a wide variety of foods and flavors increases the likelihood that they will sample and learn to like unfamiliar or novel foods. A child is also more apt to try a food if she observes an adult, such as a parent, eating it.

Thus, if your child adamantly refuses when served broccoli, for instance, do not give up. Try, try, try again! Offer it prepared in a different manner, such as raw instead of cooked (if age-appropriate), or vice versa. If he or she continues to reject it after multiple (at least 10) attempts, discontinue broccoli for a period of time. Re-introduce it again in the future, in a few weeks or so.

There are some foods that a child will always refuse; we are all entitled to our likes and dislikes. But the chance that your child will try a new, healthy food when he is older – and like it – is much higher if he is exposed to a variety of nutritious foods in a positive manner as a baby and young child.

It’s Never Too Early

Children are more likely to adopt and practice beneficial eating habits throughout their lifetime if parents feed them a nutritious diet and teach them to eat wholesome foods beginning in infancy and toddlerhood, and continuing on through childhood and adolescence. Just like bathing and tooth-brushing, healthy eating habits are a foundational life skill.

It’s never too early to begin teaching children to eat healthfully.



About the author: Keeley Drotz is a registered dietitian who lives in McKinney. With over ten years of experience, her specialization is working with children and families. She recently published her first book, The Poisoning of Our Children | Fighting the Obesity Epidemic in America, which is about the prevention of childhood obesity and provides additional suggestions for helping children establish healthy habits early on. Please visit Keeley’s website and blog at PoisoningOurChildren.com.