We know that good nutrition in the pre-school years is important to help develop good eating habits that can last a lifetime. A study from the University of Guelph suggests that 86% of the preschoolers in their study could benefit from dietary improvements. These results point to an opportunity to support families with young children.
Around the age of 4, toddlers explore the word though all their five senses and food is no exception. They may not be able to control much in their lives, but they can decide whether to eat or not, and how much. Toddlers are masters of expressing their desire for independence at mealtimes. Many parents worry about their children’s daily intakes; however health professionals recognize that at this age it helps to think of a balanced diet as something a child eats over a few days, even a week, not necessarily daily. Mealtimes are excellent opportunities for parents and caregivers to provide healthy food choices for children and create a positive atmosphere where healthy food attitudes can develop (Sizer et al.).
Evaluating healthy eating
Many researchers focused on studying the daily intake of specific nutrients or foods. In addition to recommendations about eating specific foods and nutrients, a measure of overall diet quality is useful. Few studies have looked at the overall quality of the diet in children 2-6 years of age which makes this study a valuable reference. University of Guelph researchers used the Healthy Eating Index (HEI) as a measure of diet quality to assess how well the preschoolers’ foods aligned with key dietary guidelines and recommendations. The overall HEI score is made up of 13 dietary components that reflect different food groups and key public health recommendations. The scores range from 0 to 100 maximum, and a higher total score reflects that the set of foods aligns better with dietary guidelines. For this study, three-day food records were collected to calculate HEI scores for 117 children from 83 families as an indicator of diet quality.
Healthy eating results
The mean Healthy Eating Index score reported in this study was about 68% which falls under the ‘needs improvement category (56-80 out of 100). This can be attributed to lower than recommended values in ‘adequacy components’ such as fruits, vegetables, protein foods, seafood and plant proteins and dairy. Also, ‘moderation components’ that were higher than recommended scores included refined grains and sodium. The 2021 Guelph Study’s HEI score of 68% is similar to findings of a 2004 Canadian preschool study, but higher than the 60% diet quality score found among US preschoolers published in 2019.
University of Guelph researchers also reported that parental education was positively associated with HEI scores. Children of higher educated parents tended to have a higher diet quality that aligned more with public health recommendations such as including adequate vegetables, fruit and protein foods. Specifically, the study highlighted that parents’ socioeconomic status was positively associated with total fruit score. One limitation of this study was that it looked at a relatively small sample of mostly Caucasian families. However, other studies have reported similar findings that fruit intake scores were lower in families with lower income status. Researchers suggest that fruit intake may be particularly sensitive to income status.
‘These results underscore the importance of dietitians in supporting families with young children in establishing healthy eating habits early in life. Dietary intervention and additional supports are indicated to improve the diet quality of children with parents with lower socioeconomic status and education’ (Leme et al).
n4nn & healthy eating support
Are you interested in discussing professional nutrition guidance for children so they can grow into healthy adults? At n4nn we offer services to support families with the development of healthier eating habits. We also work with foodservice providers and can help evaluate how well the mix of foods made available to kids (and adults) align with dietary recommendations. Contact us @ Lucia@weilernutrition.com to evaluate diet quality and receive valuable expert advice to inform your food purchases, programs and menus.
- Leme et al., (2021). Diet Quality of Canadian Preschool Children: Associations with Socio-demographic Characteristics, Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research. 82(3): 131-135. Accessed December 12, 2021 from https://doi.org/10.3148/cjdpr-2021-009
- Sizer et al., (2021). Nutrition Concepts and Controversies, Fifth Canadian Edition, Nelson
- USDA, Food and Nutrition Service (2020 update) Healthy Eating Index (HEI). Accessed December 12, 2021 from https://www.fns.usda.gov/healthy-eating-index-hei