Early Years Are Important for Building Healthy Nutrition and Exercise Habits

BlogEarly ChildhoodJul 25 2011

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.