Early years important for building healthy nutrition and exercise habits

A recent issue of JAMA (The Journal of the American Medical Association) includes a provocative commentary about childhood obesity.  Child Trends will let others debate the pros and cons of their suggestions. However, the ensuing attention once again shines light on a pressing public health issue – the growing problem of children who are obese and overweight.

As with many other life style habits, the early years play an important role in helping set the foundation for how a person approaches nutrition and physical activity.  Unfortunately the unhealthy routines that too many young children have when it comes to eating and exercise can jeopardize later school success and their long-term overall health.

Child Trends has just published a policy brief on early childhood nutrition and physical activity, that highlights some troubling statistics on young children and the habits they are developing.

On the nutrition front, the brief examines the overall eating patterns of children, the “food security” of households, and the context of children’s eating.  For example, the brief notes that the most recent Healthy Eating Index found that children from ages two to five scored an average of only 60 out of 100 points, based on their level of consumption of healthy foods.  In addition, 9.6 million children under age six live in “food insecure” households that consistently struggle with having enough food to eat.  Not surprisingly, food insecurity can lead to higher rates of hospitalization, iron-deficiency anemia, and other chronic health conditions.  Finally, the brief looks at the frequency of dining out among families with young children, the consumption of “convenience foods,” the context of snacking, and the frequency of watching television while eating.

An important factor affecting physical activity among young children is the prevalence of electronic media in their daily lives which our last blog post discussed.  “Screen time” is pervasive in the experience of young children, despite recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics that children younger than two should have no “screen time,” and that young children over two should have only one to two hours daily of exposure to “quality programming.”  A recent Oregon study of 2-year-olds found that nearly 20 percent spent more than two hours a day watching television, and that 18 percent had a television in their bedrooms.  Another study found that two-thirds of children under six years old live in households where the television is on “always” or “most of the time.”  Furthermore, one study found that children under six spent as much time using screen media as playing outside.  Not surprisingly, young children are significantly less likely to be obese when families limit screen time, regularly eat dinner together, and ensure that children get adequate sleep.

The brief concludes with state and local policy implications for nutrition assistance programs and access to healthier foods, among other suggestions.

While many – starting with First Lady Michelle Obama – are encouraging children to get moving and eat more nutritious food, those healthy habits are best established in the earliest years and may have life long consequences for overall development.

-David Murphey, Senior Research Scientist
Marci McCoy-Roth, Senior Director of Public Policy and Communication


Leading by example is the most important thing that one can do.

Children look up to you as a parent and want follow in your footsteps. They need rules and regulations.

I remember while growing up that my brother and I were only allowed to watch an hour a day, certain programs.
On the weekend it was about one and a half hours, and we were allowed to have some chips.

I never really had a feeling of restriction because I had so many other things to do, play.

What was missing though was the example of doing exercise, which I do now with my son.

I started jogging before he was born, and as soon as it was possible I took him with me in a stroller.

I want him to see that doing exercise is something normal, that you do on a regular bases and that you enjoy doing.

With the food choices it is the same. I lead by example, and I don’t break the “rules”.

I think the main problem that exists today is the lack of information that many parents have.

They don’t know what is healthy, and if they do know, they don’t know how to change their habits.

They don’t know how to start to change their eating habits nor how to start exercising.

I do agree with the fact that kids need to have a healthier diet but I think they need to have an explanation as to why. I was raised on fast food and it showed as a kid because of lack of exercise. If I was shown a picture of a really large person (as a kid) and told this is what happens if you keep on your path, I would have seriously considered a change (it’s actually what got me in shape as an adult). Also another way (if the young one is in sports) is to point out the likelihood it will have a negative effect on their goals.

I decided when I was pregnant to look into healthy eating and change the way I ate. wanted my son to eat healthy and I want to be an example to him. I think many parents do not want to give up their junk foods and as a result start feeding these foods to kids super early.

My son lives in a house with an abundant of fruits and vegetables. I am not extremely well off but we go without on other things to ensure that his diet is top class. I don’t want to turn around and say he can’t have something (he loves lots of different fruits) because I want him to enjoy food and enjoy healthy food.

We don’t have a TV in our house..but I don’t know whether I agree that it is a problem for children. The only time he watches it is when we are over a friends and usually he is playing at the same time. I couldn’t imagine him sitting through a whole film!

Anyway I really think the nutrition is more important. Leading by example and not introducing things like chocolate and crisps while a child is so young is a must. My son has never asked for chocolate or crisps and never had them. When he sees his friends eating their junk, he will sit beside them and eat his apples/fruit. He is 4 now and content with his food, but if he ever wants to try it I doubt it will be a regular thing and constantly like other children.

We have switched off or TV completely in March this year and do not miss it. We sometimes watch a rented movie after the kids went to bed but that’s it. I am reading more books again! Our kids (5 year-old twins) seem not to miss TV at all – they never ask about it. They prefer ‘reading’ books (talking to themselves with the book open) and playing with building blocks or dolls, or riding a bike. Additional benefit: the sofa in front of tv stays clean much longer (we would eat while watching tv and the cover was getting dirty from spills…)

“Screen time” is pervasive in the experience of young children, despite recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics that children younger than two should have no “screen time,” and that young children over two should have only one to two hours daily of exposure to “quality programming.”
My granddaughter is 2 and I know she only is allowed to watch an educational DVD just before bed to wind down from the day’s activities. I do think early years build the foundation of healthy habits for a lifetime.

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