Preventing Childhood Obesity

Make Every Bite Count!

By: Nancy Trout, MD, MPH

Most Americans do not follow a healthy dietary pattern. This is the conclusion of the recently released 2020-2025 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The theme of this edition is “make every bite count.”

This edition marks the first time that the guidelines have included children from birth to age 2, highlighting the importance of starting childhood off right from birth. In addition, it is the first time the USDA has presented its recommendations by life stage from birth to adulthood.

Access the 2020-2025 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Knowing that early food exposures influence taste preferences and food choices later on, focusing on a healthy diet from even the youngest ages is essential. The Kohl’s Start Childhood Off Right (SCOR) program also emphasizes and promotes the importance of this early foundation with consistent healthy eating and active living messaging for providers, community outreach workers, and families in order to prevent childhood obesity.

In clinical practice, we see daily evidence that the foods and beverages children (and adults) consume have a profound effect on their health and well-being and on their ability to live a healthy and disease-free life. Make every bite count refers to eating more nutrient-dense foods and beverages that provide vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients. It also refers to limiting foods with added sugars, saturated fats, salt and empty calories.

The USDA guidelines encourage people to follow a healthy dietary pattern in appropriate portion sizes at every stage of life. This begins with breastfeeding (or utilizing iron fortified formula) for the first 6 months of life. It also includes adding healthy nutrient-dense complementary foods and encouraging infants and toddlers to eat a broad range of foods from all food groups and of various colors, textures and flavors.

The USDA guidelines also recognize the diversity of cultural food and beverage traditions in the United States, as well as budgetary constraints and considerations. However, even within various cultures, parents should strive to provide their children with healthy choices from these core elements:

  • Vegetables of all types
  • Fruits, especially whole fruit
  • Grains, especially whole grains
  • Dairy, especially fat-free or low-fat
  • Protein foods, including lean meats, poultry and seafood; legumes, nuts and soy products

MyPlate.gov is a readily available resource to help guide and support healthy dietary patterns for all ages.

Healthy beverage choices are also an essential component of the new USDA guidelines. Studies have shown that sugar sweetened beverages contribute to tooth decay, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease and heart disease. The USDA guidelines recommend water and unflavored cow’s milk for children older than 1 year and trying to limit juice, soda, sports drinks, sweetened teas, and other juice drinks. The industry also heavily promotes toddler milks as optimal for nutrition and development, but physicians, nutritionists and other health professionals do not recommend them. To further this messaging, the UConn RUDD Center for Food Policy and Obesity has created “keep it simple, keep it real” toolkits for caregivers to dispel these myths and promote healthy beverage choices for young children.

Take a look at the “keep it simple, keep it real” campaign.

Parents and other caregivers play an essential role in infant and toddler nutrition, as young children are wholly dependent on them for their food. The USDA guidelines discuss not only what to feed them, but also how to feed them and respond to their cues. Parents also set the nutritional tone for older children and adolescents, both by example and by establishing healthy family habits that include emphasizing nutritious foods and healthy beverage choices, as well as encouraging regular physical activity. The dietary guidelines provide a template for parents, schools and communities to emphasize the importance of healthy eating and active living. Together, they can create an environment where healthy foods, healthy beverages and regular physical activity are the norm for all children and adolescents so that we can begin to lower the rates of obesity in our local communities and across the country.

Nancy Trout, MD, MPH is a primary care pediatrician and co-director of Kohl’s Start Childhood Off Right, which is a childhood obesity prevention initiative of Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health.

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