updated 3/19/2004 9:12:15 AM ET 2004-03-19T14:12:15

The latest study of infants’ and toddlers’ eating habits concludes that parents feed their babies better than in the past. Unfortunately, parents then let their toddlers adopt the family’s poor eating habits at an early age.

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The results of the study identify several opportunities parents have to improve their children’s health and fight the growing diabetes and obesity problem among children.

The Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study selected a random group of more than 3,000 children aged four months to two years and looked at the foods the children ate in a day. Parents appear to know the importance of good nutrition for babies: Compared to past findings, more babies are breastfed. They are breastfed for longer periods. And virtually all who are fed formula receive the recommended iron-fortified type.

Bad eating habits at a young age
However, as babies grow into toddlers, parents seem unaware of how to prevent them from picking up eating habits that are causing weight and health problems in the rest of the family.

For example, toddlers do not receive the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Among toddlers aged one to two years, fruit was absent for about half at breakfast, for half at lunch and for about 60 percent at dinner. In the same group, about half had no vegetables at lunch and about one-third had none at dinner – even when French fries were counted as vegetables.

Incidentally, French fries turned up as one of the three most common vegetables eaten by those aged nine to eleven months. This fatty, high-calorie choice was the most common vegetable from fifteen months onward. Twenty to 26 percent of the children in the study ate French fries at least once a day.

Limit high-calorie, sugary snacks
Researchers warn that the avoidance of fruits and vegetables seen in older children, adolescents and adults most likely originates in life experiences before two years of age. Early and repeated exposure to a variety of foods, including fruits and vegetables, has been shown to increase children’s liking for them.

Experts say parents and caregivers should include one or two fruits or vegetables at each meal. Ideally, everyone would eat at least as many, if not more servings.

Snacks are another way for toddlers, as well as others, to get fruits and vegetables. Yet FITS shows that the most common snacks for toddlers are cookies, crackers, chips, milk, water and fruit drink (not fruit juice). The majority of babies and toddlers over eight months old had at least one dessert or sweetened drink every day.

Snacks play a major role in the nutrition of young children, since their stomach capacity limits the amount of food they can eat at meals. Parents should limit high-calorie, low-nutrient snacks. Better choices include fruit, cheese, yogurt and low-sugar cereals.

More milk, less juice
Experts also urge parents to give toddlers milk to drink. FITS suggests that juice, fruit drink and carbonated drinks often displace milk in toddlers’ diets. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that juice be held from babies until they are six months old. From ages one to six years, children should be limited to a four to six ounce portion of juice a day. The AAP also stresses that whole milk should be served until age two.

Parents often give up too easily when offering new foods to their infants and toddlers. Studies repeatedly show that a new food should be served eight to fifteen times. With familiarity, children often accept a food.

Yet in this study only six to nine percent of caregivers offered a new food even six times. About 25 percent gave up after serving a new food only once or twice. Another 38 to 55 percent threw in the towel after three to five tries. For the long-term health of their children, caregivers should make an extra effort to introduce wholesome foods.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

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