The review looked at the micronutrient adequacy of the diets of 9,848 children aged 1-6 years in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, and revealed the proportion of children not meeting the dietary reference intakes of key micronutrients increased with age and was most pronounced for calcium, vitamin D, potassium, choline and fiber.
For example, 79.2% of 1- to 2-year-olds were deficient in vitamin D compared to 87.3% of 2- to 3-years olds and 90.8% of 4- to 6-year-olds. Similarly, 3.6% of 1- to 3-year-olds were deficient in calcium compared to 30.4% of 4- to 6-year-olds.
The review, which is only one of a handful of studies to look at nutrient efficiency of diets for toddlers and children just beyond the first 1,000 days, also revealed deficiencies of vitamins E and B6, DHA, and iron were prevalent among 1- to 6-year-olds.
Overall, the drop in micronutrient levels from infancy through six years illustrates the vulnerability of children in this age range as they transition from milk as their main source of energy to more solids and eventually the family’s diet, according to the study.
“During this period children may also develop selective food preferences that eliminate certain foods and or food groups,” explain the researchers.
The deficits also could be attributed in part to caregivers not fully understanding children’s dietary needs and how quickly their growing bodies and brains use nutrients. Emerging dietary patterns – such as plant-based – which might not have as many child-friendly options with the micronutrients at risk of falling short also could contribute to the decline.
Simple, whole-food swaps can fill gaps
While these deficiencies are problematic, they don’t mean toddlers and young children need heavily fortified foods, special supplements of follow-on formulas designed for toddlers – although there is a place for these products in some children’s diets – Natasha Burget, a pediatrician a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, told FoodNavigator-USA.
Rather, she explained, what most toddlers and young children need are simple, nutrient dense, whole-foods that can help fill the micronutrient gaps in their diet – like an extra egg at breakfast one day a week or a serving of whole milk with dinner.
Nutrient call-outs on packs miss education opportunity
Likewise, she said, what most caregivers of young children need from the food industry is additional, contextual information about diet and nutrition that goes beyond the “overwhelming” nutrient call-outs on packaging to help them understand how food fits into an overall healthy lifestyle.
“Nutrition doesn’t have to be so complicated, but some of the nutrition labeling on some of the food products that are supposed to help showcase the different nutrients that our food may offer, can be confusing to families when it comes to them all at once as they are walking through the grocery aisles,” Burget said.
She explained: “Nutrition is so much more than what you might put in a glass. It is the relationship that you have with food and family. It is the memories that you make. It is the feeling that you get … and the bonds we create while eating as part of a family function. It needs to be more globally thought of as a skill set for social and emotional well-being for kids outside of what’s just on the plate or in the supplement or in the glass.”
While this can be too much to explain on food packaging, brands can help convey this message through digital marketing, their websites and partnerships with public health advocates.
For example, the Partnership for a Healthier America’s recently launched Veggies Early and Often campaign aims to share positive, science-based messaging that kids can learn to love veggies and showcase brands and organizations that adopt its “Veggies Early & Often” as a reliable indicators that products are veggie-forward.
Campaign participants, such as Good Feeding and Tiny Organics, provide caregivers more than food – they also offer detailed feeding guidance and breakdown for parents the importance of different foods for nutrition but also developing skills.
Finally, while the study revealed some micronutrient shortfalls, Burget emphasized it found most US children are consuming most of the micronutrients they need to thrive – which she says should give caretakers “reassurance” that they don’t need to dramatically change children’s dietary patterns or buy myriad specialty items.
Indeed, the study found most US children aged 1-6 years have adequate intakes of vitamins A, B6, B12, and C, and of thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc.
It also found that most children consume adequate amounts of iron and B6 but still have deficiency based on biomarkers – suggesting the sources of these micronutrients could influence their bioavailability and should be considered by caregivers and other stakeholders.