Study: Toddlers who try more veggies less picky years later

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If you’re the parent of an infant or toddler, you’ve probably given a lot of thought to how you can raise a non-picky eater who enjoys a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and doesn’t overdo it on junk food. Diets rich in colorful fruits and vegetables and low in sugary and energy-dense foods and drinks can help kids (and parents) maintain a healthy weight, prevent cancer as adults and reduce their risk of other chronic diseases.

Raising kids that prefer healthy foods isn’t easy, but a new study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests strategies that parents can try with their young children that may affect what foods kids enjoy and eat more of as they get older. It joins a growing body of research pointing to the importance of introducing a wide variety of vegetables to children under the age of 2. It also provide new evidence that parents should avoid introducing foods low in nutrients, but high in saturated fat, added sugars, or salt to young children who haven’t yet tasted them.

This study used data from the NOURISH trial, a randomized control trial that began in Australia in 2008. The original study looked at whether providing new mothers with guidance on feeding and parenting practices affected outcomes as children got older. In this new study, researchers analyzed data from 340 mother-child pairs to see whether the amount of fruits, vegetables, and noncore (low-nutrient) foods tried by 14-month olds affected their preference for and intake of these foods, food fussiness, and weight about two and half years later.

The study defined noncore foods as those low in nutrients and high in saturated fat, added sugars, or salt. Food fussiness is how parents tend to interpret food neophobia, or the fear of trying new foods that often peaks between ages 2 and 6.

Not surprisingly, researchers found that the number of fruits, vegetables, and noncore foods that 14-month olds tried increased how much they liked each food category as 3 and a half year olds.

They also found that 14-month olds who had tried more fruits and vegetables ate a wider variety of fruits and vegetables more frequently as 3-year olds. Likewise, trying more of the less nutritious foods as a 14-month year old increased the amount of noncore foods children ate as 3-year olds.

Of interest to parents with picky toddlers, 14-month olds who had tried more types of vegetables displayed less fussiness around food as 3-year olds. This was true even for children who had been fussy at 14-month olds. Trying more fruits or noncore foods at 14 months did not affect later food fussiness. This suggests encouraging young children to try a wide variety of vegetables, which tend to be less sweet than fruits and noncore foods, is especially important.

Despite these results, researchers found that the number and types of different foods tried by 14-month olds didn’t affect their BMI as 3-year olds. This could be because many factors influence children’s weight or because dietary patterns only impact weight over a longer time period. Regardless of weight, encouraging higher intake of fruits and vegetables and lower intake of noncore foods has health benefits — including cancer prevention — for kids and adults of any age.

The NOURISH trial was funded by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council. Additional funding was provided by HJ Heinz, Meat & Livestock Australia, Department of Health South Australia, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, and Queensland University of Technology.

For parents looking to help their child eat a variety of healthy foods, use this Super Crew Food Tracker to color in the new foods they try.

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    Author: Julia Quam

    Julia Quam, MSPH, RDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist in the Washington, DC metro area. Julia is passionate about nutrition education and communicating evidence-based information about nutrition and physical activity to improve public health.

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