The key to good childhood nutrition is building healthy eating habits from the first years of life. Because, as with other sensory-motor activities, such as movement and sensory perception, handling, smelling, and tasting, eating is a skill that matures during childhood and is influenced by several factors that interact and contribute to the construction of patterns and preferences that will perpetuate throughout life.
Eating problems, such as a refusal to eat, lack of appetite, and overeating, result from complex interactions between biological factors. For example, medical conditions that can associate eating with physical discomfort, psychological factors, family and cultural habits, and the relationship between the child and the caregiver.
Moderate and transient eating problems are not rare: they occur in 25%-35% of young children and, in most cases, are overcome without any specialized intervention. However, persistent eating problems can compromise a child’s development.
More seriously, poor childhood nutrition patterns, such as a diet high in fat, sugar, refined carbohydrates, sweet drinks, and few fruits, vegetables, and legumes, can lead children to early growth failure. Therefore, they may never reach their full physical and intellectual potential for the rest of their lives.
Long term consequences
The results of child malnutrition, characterized by chronic energy-protein and micronutrient deficiency, or obesity, defined as excess weight, a sedentary lifestyle, and consumption of high-fat and high-energy foods, do not end in childhood. When they occur at this stage, both malnutrition and obesity interfere with the development and organization of various body systems and may permanently alter their functioning and regulation, predisposing them to harmful long-term effects.
While childhood obesity is related to its persistence into adulthood, childhood malnutrition compromises cognitive and motor development, altering growth and predisposing the child to recurrent infections.
Poor nutrition on the rise
According to the State of the World’s Children 2019: Children, Food and Nutrition report, one in three children under five – about 250 million – is malnourished or overweight. These global trends have been confirmed in Brazil: one in three children aged 5 to 9 years are heavy.
“In Brazil, as in most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, children, and adolescents are not eating enough healthy food and too much unhealthy food,” said Florence Bauer, UNICEF representative in Brazil in a press release. “Because of this, today there is a triple burden of malnutrition, in which micronutrient deficiency coexists with obesity and is associated with chronic non-communicable diseases,” she analyzed.
When we think about offering the best conditions for the construction of healthy eating patterns that guarantee proper child nutrition and its benefits throughout life, it is essential to:
#1 Allow children to develop their food preferences based on healthy choices
- Lead by example: adopt and share healthy habits.
- Offer variety: include different types of fruits, vegetables, and legumes on the menu, with diverse preparations and presentations.
#2 Ensure that children associate mealtime with positive experiences
- Stress-free: offer meals in calm places with relaxed interactions, minimizing sources of stress and anxiety
- Pay attention to the meal: avoid distracting factors such as games and device screens.
- On the child’s time: Allow enough time for the meal, but don’t require the child to stay at the table for more than 30 minutes.
#3 Monitor eating difficulties with specialized professionals
- Oral motor deficit: children with persistent difficulty in eating may have, for example, difficulty in swallowing
- A vicious cycle: refusal to eat can lead to stunted growth, which contributes to deficiencies in eating skills, as malnourished children do not have enough energy to feed themselves competently.