More US infants than ever in the 21st century falling short on iron, other nutrients, Nestlé study reveals

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08 Jun 2018 --- Nearly 20 percent of infants (6 to 12 months old) are not getting enough iron in their diet, putting them at risk for sub optimal cognitive development. This is one of them main findings of 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. More infants than ever in the 21st century are falling short on iron, a critical nutrient to support learning ability and brain development, with the percentage of infants between 6 and 12 months old who do not consume the recommended amount of iron increasing from 7.5 percent in 2002 to 12 percent in 2008 to 18 percent in 2016, the study shows.

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 percent 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 3 percent of 6- to 12-month-olds received an iron supplement, according to the study.

Click to EnlargeAfter 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.

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 US 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. The first set of publications appear online in the Journal of Nutrition, published by the American Society for Nutrition.

Speaking on how the FITS study findings can inform recommendations for the food and beverage industry, government agencies and other food policy, Wendy Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., Vice President, Nutrition, Health and Wellness for Nestlé USA, tells NutritionInsight: “Good nutrition during the first years of life sets the stage for a lifetime of healthy eating. But in the last 30 years, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the US.”

“Understanding young children’s diets and feeding practices, and gauging their nutrient excesses and shortfalls, is essential to setting appropriate dietary recommendations. The FITS findings provide much needed information on feeding practices, successes achieved and areas of opportunity for dietary improvement for infants and toddlers. These findings can help us make better choices for what we feed infants and toddlers every day to support healthy growth and establish lifelong healthy eating behaviors for today’s youngest Americans,” she says. “Through FITS, Nestlé and Gerber are working to identify nutritional gaps to ensure all children get a healthy start to life.”

Opportunities for improvement
The FITS 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.

However, the study also shows that 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.

Fortunate timing
“The FITS findings are well timed to inform food policy discussions, including the development of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which for the first time will include guidance for children from birth to 24 months as well as pregnant women. These guidelines will be instrumental in shaping pediatric practice guidelines and supporting parents and caregivers in providing a healthful diet to young children from the start,” Johnson concludes.

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