Nearly 20 percent of infants (6 to 12 months old) are falling short of iron in their diet, putting them at risk for sub optimal cognitive development, according to the latest Nestlé Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study (FITS). The study also shows that many young children do not consume a single discrete serving of either fruits, vegetables, whole grains, or dairy on a given day and miss the mark on nutrients that are important for development and overall health, including vitamin D, fiber and potassium.
Started in 2002 by Gerber and now conducted by the Nestlé Research Center in Lausanne, Switzerland, FITS is the largest dietary intake study in the United States focused on infants, toddlers and preschoolers. As part of the company’s Nestlé for Healthier Kids initiative to help 50 million children lead healthier lives by 2030, FITS helps to build, share and apply nutritional knowledge. Nearly 10,000 parents and caregivers of infants, toddlers and preschoolers have now been surveyed over three FITS studies. A team of pediatric experts and nutrition scientists from leading academic, medical, government and research institutions collaborated with Nestlé and Gerber on the most recent FITS study. The first set of publications appear online in the Journal of Nutrition, published by the American Society for Nutrition.
“Good nutrition during a child’s early years is particularly critical because it sets the stage for healthy eating throughout life,” said Wendy Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., Vice President, Nutrition, Health and Wellness for Nestlé USA. “The latest FITS data confirms that more work is needed to improve the diets of young children, and gives us insight into areas we must focus on to foster healthy eating habits.”
The percentage of infants falling short on iron has more than doubled since 2002
The FITS findings show that more infants than ever in the 21st century are falling short on iron, a critical nutrient to support learning ability and brain development. The percentage of infants between 6 and 12 months old who do not consume the recommended amount of iron has increased from 7.5 percent in 2002 to 12 percent in 2008 to 18 percent in 2016. Infants typically have enough iron from birth until around 4 to 6 months, at which time they must consume dietary sources of iron to achieve adequate intakes and avoid the risk for iron deficiency. However, the research indicates that consumption of iron-rich foods is less than ideal and in part explains the widening iron gap. About 95% of babies over 6 months do not eat beef, an excellent source of iron, and infant cereal consumption, the long-standing leading food source of iron for infants, is at an all-time low with only slightly more than half now eating it. Only three percent of 6- to 12-month-olds received an iron supplement.
More than one quarter of toddlers and preschoolers do not eat a single serving of vegetables on a given day
After their first birthday, the nutrition of young children tends to decline as they transition away from baby food. Study findings show that about 27 percent of children between 1 and 3 years of age do not eat a single discrete serving of vegetables on a given day. Of those who do, french fries are the most common vegetable consumed. Mixed dishes (like pasta dishes containing vegetables) become more common as children get older and can be good sources of vegetables and other nutritious foods such as whole grains, lean meats and other protein foods, low-fat dairy, and healthy fats.
Signs of progress and opportunities for improvement
The FITS 2016 findings reveal some improvements in young children’s diets, and highlight the importance of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) to early childhood nutrition:
- Breastfeeding initiation and duration have improved, with more children than ever breastfed (83 percent in 2016, compared to 76 percent in 2002), and 25 percent continuing to receive breastmilk past their first birthday (12- to 15-months) compared to 14 percent in 2002.
- Compared to 2002, the proportion of some toddlers eating fruit has increased, and those drinking 100 percent fruit juice has decreased.
- Infants and young children who participate in WIC were less likely to fall short on iron, zinc and vitamin D, and less likely to overconsume saturated fat compared to some non-participants.
Meanwhile, troubling nutrient shortfalls start early and many young children consume excess sweets and sodium:
- Fewer than 25 percent of infants 0- to 12-months get adequate amounts of vitamin D.
- More than 75 percent of 1- to 3-year-olds do not get recommended amounts of vitamin D.
- Fewer than 10 percent of 1- to 3-year-olds get adequate amounts of dietary fiber and potassium.
- About 75 percent of 2- to 3-year-olds exceed the upper limit for sodium, and more than 60 percent exceed saturated fat guidelines.
- About 30 percent of 1-year-olds and 45 percent of 2- to 3-year-olds drink sugar-sweetened beverages on a given day, with fruit flavored drinks being the most common.
Enhancing the food policy discussion with data from FITS
The latest FITS findings are well-timed to inform food policy discussions, including the development of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 and reconsideration of the benefits offered in the WIC food package which was last revised in 2009.
“While academic organizations and the public health community have invested significantly in improving children’s food choices amidst the obesity epidemic, the conversation needs to start earlier, with focused efforts on infants and young children through education and interventions with proven benefits,” said Dr. Ryan Carvalho, M.D., Medical Director at Gerber. “We know that good nutrition and healthy eating habits in the first 1,000 days can have a lifelong impact on health.”
In the last 30 years, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “According to the most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data, almost 14 percent of 2- to 5-year-olds have obesity, which increases their risk of Type 2 diabetes and premature heart disease,” said Dr. William Dietz, M.D., Ph.D., Chair and Director of the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness at Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. “The need for dietary guidance starts at birth and even earlier, which is why for the first time, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans will include recommendations for children from birth to 24 months old and pregnant women.”
“Now is the time to halt the rise of childhood overweight and obesity by supporting healthy behaviors in our youngest children as their eating habits and food preferences are being formed,” said Carvalho. “The new FITS findings are crucial to identifying nutrition solutions that offer support and guidance to parents and caregivers on how best to feed their young children.”
For more information about FITS, visit nestleusa.com/FITS.