The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has published new dietary guidelines to help Americans get and stay healthier across all parts of the lifespan. Babies and toddlers are included for the first time, because the recommendations cover our full lifespan.

The guidelines are called “Make Every Bite Count.” If we want to get and stay healthy, we shouldn’t be eating foods that are basically empty calories — or worse, foods that actually do us harm.

Because foods can do us harm. Eating an unhealthy diet can lead to obesity, with the cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and everything else obesity brings. It can lead to cancer, tooth decay, anemia, high blood pressure, weak bones, and so many other problems. The adage “you are what you eat” is remarkably true.

Why healthy eating is so important for children

Children are building bodies and habits they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. The track they get on when they are young is very often the one they stay on, and we want that to be a good track.

Right now, 40% of children are overweight or obese, and research shows that they are likely to stay that way or get worse. Since children rely on parents and caregivers for their food, this is on us. We literally have their lives in our hands.

Starting with infants and toddlers: First foods and responsive eating

For infants and toddlers, the recommendations include

  • feeding with breast milk whenever possible, ideally for at least the first six months of life. When that isn’t possible, infants should be fed iron-fortified infant formula.
  • vitamin D for infants that are entirely or mostly breastfed
  • responsive feeding: parents and caregivers are encouraged to pay attention to the cues babies give to us when they are hungry — and when they are full
  • waiting to start solids until around 6 months of age.

When babies start eating solids, it’s the first chance parents have to influence their tastes and food choices, so parents are encouraged to offer all sorts of different foods, including iron-fortified cereals, and also fruits, vegetables, meats, beans, and whole grains. They are also encouraged to give babies potentially allergenic foods like peanuts, eggs, tree nuts, seafood, dairy, and wheat. Research shows that giving those foods can actually help prevent food allergies!

Foods to avoid and encourage as children grow

What children shouldn’t have, according to the recommendations, is anything that’s made with sugar or has sugar added to it. In fact, it’s recommended that children have zero sugar in their diet before the age of 2. It has no nutritional value, so it is truly empty calories — and a sugar habit is one of the many unhealthy habits that can be hard to break.

As children grow, the recommendations continue to be about healthy habits. Children should get lots of vegetables, fruits, grains (preferably at least half whole grains), protein (lean meats, poultry, eggs, seafood, beans, peas, nuts, soy), dairy (including lactose-free and fortified soy dairy products), and healthy oils. They should get very little sugar or saturated fat (less than 10% of their calories should be from either one), and limited sodium. Portion sizes should be appropriate for age (kids and grownups should not be served the same amount), snacks should be healthy, and the meal plate should be like the one on MyPlate: half fruits and/or vegetables, just over a quarter grains, and just under a quarter protein. That’s not what most plates of food look like, if we are to be honest.

The reality is that very few children in the US eat a truly healthy diet. Almost none of them eat the amount of vegetables that they should, for example. We can turn this around, but it will mean all sorts of habit changes — not just for children, but for everyone in the household. Here are some suggestions:

  • Learn about healthy foods, and healthy recipes that reflect your traditions. MyPlate Kitchen, MyPlate for Different Cultures (with meal ideas drawn from many parts of the world), and EatRight have lots of great information and ideas.
  • Plan meals and snacks for the week. Too often we end up grabbing unhealthy things because they are easy and available. Planning ahead can help, as can preparing some meals and snacks ahead of time.
  • Shop healthy! Once you’ve made your plans, put the ingredients and healthy snack foods on the list. Leave off soda, sweets, and junk food. If it’s not in the house, you can’t eat it.
  • Eat meals together. Cook together, too. Family meals are good for kids and families, and the best way to set a good example.
  • Keep trying. It can take a while for tastes and habits to change. Kids — and many adults — may need to try something again and again before they realize that it actually tastes good.

Small steps count

It’s okay to take things in little steps, like cutting one unhealthy thing from the shopping list a week, adding family meals gradually, or starting with one bite of vegetables and building from there. The important thing is to begin — and keep at it. That’s how all good habits are built.

And good eating habits are habits we need to build, because our lives, and our children’s lives, depend on them.

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

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