U.S. dietary quality has modestly improved over the past two decades, and preschool-aged children have better dietary quality than adolescents and adults aged 18 to 64 years. However, an Abt-led study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that diets of U.S. children in early child-care programs continue to fall short of Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). The study found that average intakes of vegetables, whole grains, dairy, and oils fall below recommendations while intakes of solid fats and added sugar are higher than recommended.
Poor dietary quality is linked to obesity and heart issues in adolescents and adults, although researchers know less about the effect on preschool-aged children. The Study of Nutrition and Activity in Child Care Settings marks an important step by analyzing the quality of diets for children in early child-care programs on both child-care and non-child-care days. Seventy-five percent of 3-5-year-olds attend such programs, so meals and snacks offered while in care may substantially affect overall child dietary quality.
The study found that dietary intakes of preschool-aged children attending Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) child care programs were within or close to DGA recommendations for fruit, grains, dairy, protein foods and oils. But consumption fell below recommended levels for vegetables and whole grains on both child-care and non-child-care days. Further, few children met recommendations for limiting empty calories from added sugars and solid fats. Children consumed significantly fewer empty calories on a child-care day than on a non-child-care day, however. Overall, compliance with recommendations was greater on child-care days than on non-child-care days, but both environments can improve. The findings underscore the potential for early child-care programs to influence dietary quality through CACFP and similar programs or policies.