Too much sugar, too much fat, too many meals on the run and not enough vegetables or variety. Could it be that Americans' worst eating habits all take root in the high chair and stroller? Consider this: By age 2, according to a 2002 survey, 1 in 5 babies is eating candy every day. And the No. 1 vegetable for toddlers isn't pureed peas or carrots; it's French fries. Sounds a lot less like baby food and a lot more like, well, our own meals.
To understand exploding obesity rates among the very young, researchers are looking into the critical period between breast or bottle and the school lunchroom, when lifelong food habits take shape. During the first year of life, experts say, babies self-regulate how much they eat; infants who aren't hungry will refuse another swallow, no matter how much parents try to feed them. But in the second year, babies, like adults, begin responding less to hunger pangs and more to social cues: Is Mommy giving me more? Has everyone else at the table had seconds? I want to snack in front of the TV too!
That occurs at the very time when a baby's galloping growth rate is beginning to taper. A child typically triples its birth weight during the first 12 months, but babies don't normally approach the quadruple mark until their second birthday. With growth slowing, toddlers need fewer calories per kilogram than infants, but not many parents seem to know that. In fact, because toddlers tend to be pickier than infants and are less interested in sitting still for a meal, parents often grow concerned that their kids aren't eating enough. "It becomes a vicious cycle where the parent is chasing the toddler around with a spoon, trying to get him to eat," says Dr. W. Allan Walker, a professor of pediatrics and nutrition at Harvard Medical School and the author of Eat, Play, and Be Healthy. Many parents come to rely on snacks eaten on the go, which tend to be salty, sweet or otherwise unhealthy. At mealtimes, instead of offering whatever the parents are eating, moms will provide "kid food"--easy-to-prepare child pleasers like pizza, mac and cheese and chicken nuggets.
No wonder that, according to new data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 26% of 2-to-5-year-olds are at risk of becoming overweight, and 14% are already overweight--more than twice the incidence in the mid-'70s and up 35% in the past four years alone. Those numbers could rise as much as 30% overnight if the U.S. adopts the new growth-chart guidelines issued last month by the World Health Organization. "I'm seeing younger and younger kids overweight--as young as 10 months old," says Jan Hangen, a clinical nutrition specialist at Children's Hospital Boston. "Parents bring babies into the office in these huge strollers packed with food and snacks, drinking soda and juice. We never used to see that."
In most cases, parents, particularly mothers, are the gatekeepers of what babies eat. An eight-year study of 70 baby-mother pairs at the University of Tennessee, published in 2002, confirmed that food preferences are established early: 8-year-olds usually like the same foods they did when they were 4, and preferences are often formed as early as age 2. Mothers tend not to offer their babies food they dislike themselves. So if Mom can't bear Brussels sprouts, chances are her child will never taste them.