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Research shows eating healthy is key for preschoolers

Researchers are proving that making healthy food choices is vital toward long-term health­—even for preschoolers.

A recent study suggested that child care facilities should look for creative, cost-effective ways to promote healthy eating and physical activity among preschool children. Currently, the national obesity rate for children ages three to five is between 15 and 20 percent.

The study, which was led by researchers from Duke University Medical Center, the University of Minnesota, the Gillings School of Public Health and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill among other universities, found that existing child care regulations in the United States, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C. and U.S. military bases are not meeting recommendations from professional health groups.

Although many states have policies that govern the food schools can serve children, they are missing an opportunity to curb obesity when children are still in preschool, said Sara Neelon, assistant professor of community and family medicine and global health, who helped author the study.

“Obesity rates are not only increasing, they’re also permeating down to a younger age,” Neelon said. “A 2- or 3-year-old who’s heavy often remains heavy as an adult and already has increased risk of disease later in life.”

Lorna Chafe, a child care consultant for the Program in Education, said it is important for children to learn to make healthy lifestyle choices early in life.

“Nutrition is critical to all aspects of development as is stimulation and movement,” Chafe wrote in an email Sept. 19. “If these are neglected in the early months and years, [children] cannot develop to their fullest potential.”

One of Neelon’s studies reviewed state regulations pertaining to eight nutrition and physical activity measures in child care settings and found strong variation from state to state. Tennessee, for example, covered six of the eight factors. The District of Columbia, Idaho, Nebraska and Washington met none.

“We see a lot of french fries, fruit punch and other unhealthy foods at child care centers because there isn’t any federal oversight,” Neelon said.

Kristen Stephens, assistant professor of the practice in the Program in Education, agrees that it is important for children to form healthy habits early in life. She said parents should shoulder more of the responsibility.

“Once again, schools are being blamed for all the problems in the world,” Stephens said. “While it’s important that childcare facilities model good nutrition and healthy exercise, fundamentally it’s the parent’s responsibility to ensure that their children receive those things.”

Stephens added that the North Carolina Division of Child Development issues star-rated licenses to eligible child care centers, allowing parents to make informed decisions when choosing a child care facility. The ratings, which range from one to five stars, are based on the level of staff education and factors such as cleanliness and comfort of the environment, staff-to-child ratio and the quality of the interactions between adults and children.

Even with a rating system, Stephens said the high demand and limited number of five-star child care facilities can make it difficult for parents to find high-quality child care.

With 75 percent of 3- to 5-year-old children receiving care outside the home and consuming two-thirds of their daily calories at child-care centers, Neelon said parents and child care centers share the responsibility of teaching healthy habits.

Although educating child care providers is a more complicated infrastructure issue, Neelon said that states can make simple regulatory changes at no cost to the child care facility or the state. In July, for example, North Carolina passed a policy that requires child care centers to take children outside to play every day.

“Finding low-cost or no-cost ways to get kids healthier should be our first line of defense,” Neelon said.

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