The foundation for healthy eating starts early, as research continues to show nutrition during the first 1,000 days of life has far-reaching impacts on children’s ability to succeed in both school and life. What’s more, what a mom eats and drinks during pregnancy affects both her health and the health of her children over their lifetimes.
For these reasons, urgency is being placed on ensuring optimal nutrition during pregnancy and the first 24 months of life. These time periods are key to supporting optimal growth and development, as well as preventing diet-related chronic diseases such as obesity, hypertension and diabetes.
Dairy producers and processors have an opportunity to showcase the benefits of dairy foods for both these life stages and for children overall, who have nutritional needs that differ from the overall population. While doing so, the dairy industry could emphasize the variety of milk and dairy foods available to meet a range of personal needs, tastes and preferences.
By embracing the rich diversity of cultural cuisines present in our nation, milk and dairy foods remain a part of healthy, culturally diverse eating patterns. Additionally, these solutions help foster nutritional equity for vulnerable populations, including pregnant women, infants and children, who benefit from the essential nutrients dairy foods provide.
Children’s health is at risk
Childhood overweightness and obesity continue to create lifelong health risks for far too many children. We have learned that obesity and malnutrition are actually linked, and that early influences and even intergenerational factors can increase the risk for overweightness and obesity. Such influences have contributed to a growing health crisis.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says failure to provide adequate nutrition during the first 1,000 days of life could lead to lifelong deficits in brain function. In addition, according to a report by UNICEF, two-thirds of children between the ages of 6 months and 2 years do not get adequate nutrition for growth and development, while one-third of about 700 million children under age 5 around the world are undernourished or overweight.
In the United States, childhood obesity rates remain historically high, putting millions of young people at greater risk for serious health conditions, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and asthma. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s “State of Childhood Obesity” report released in October 2019, the United States spends $14 billion annually on childhood obesity alone. Obesity rates rise with age, and there are significant differences in obesity prevalence, with Black and Hispanic youth having a higher obesity prevalence than non-Hispanic whites.
For many children, access to nutrition education, nutritious foods and supports for optimal nutrition are severely limited, which puts them at a disadvantage and compromises their ability to grow up healthy. With widening socioeconomic gaps and inequities, efforts to fully support the nutritional needs of children have their challenges but also present unique and imperative opportunities.
For the first time, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released in late December 2020, include recommendations for pregnant women, infants and toddlers. Previous recommendations focused solely on Americans ages 2 and older. This new focus results from a growing body of evidence showing that lifelong health is shaped by how well individuals are nourished starting in pregnancy and then into these early years.
The guidelines also emphasize the importance of tailoring recommendations using a life-stages approach, recognizing nutritional needs vary based on age. Early food preferences influence later food choices, and diet quality impacts health throughout each subsequent stage of life.
The guidelines also acknowledge the unique package of nutrients dairy contributes to the American diet, including calcium, vitamin D, potassium and more, which work together to provide multiple health benefits. Due to underconsumption, these nutrients were previously identified to be of concern in the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines. Young children who do not meet the daily recommended servings of milk, yogurt, cheese and other dairy foods may have inadequate intakes of these important nutrients, negatively impacting health in the short and long term.
Nutrition and access to healthful foods, including milk and dairy foods, play an important role in protecting the health of people across their lifespans, which is why the Dietary Guidelines are more relevant than ever. With overall diet quality being low for many children and families, especially those in marginalized communities, there will be ample opportunities to position milk and dairy foods as high-quality foods that are an essential part of healthy eating patterns.
Beverages choices important
Before age 2, beverages make up a large part of dietary intake. With a variety of beverage options available, some parents and caregivers may be unsure which beverages constitute healthful options for infants and toddlers.
In September 2019, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry and the American Heart Association collaborated to produce “Healthy Beverage Consumption in Early Childhood.” This report provides clear beverage guidance for children ages 0–5 to support optimal physical and cognitive growth, as well as to prevent future diet-related chronic diseases.
The report recommends water and milk as the go-to beverages after children’s first year of life and acknowledges dairy milk at different fat levels plays an important role for children as they grow and develop. The recommendations support the consumption of whole milk for children ages 12–24 months and fat-free or low-fat milk for children ages 2 years and older.
The report also categorizes plant-based alternative beverages (except for fortified soy beverages) as “not recommended” for children ages 0–5. Due to the wide variability of nutrient profiles among plant-based alternatives, the panel agreed these beverages are not nutritionally equivalent to dairy milk and thus should not be exclusively consumed in place of milk.
Collaboration is vital to prioritizing children’s health and building healthier communities. With this understanding, Dairy Council of California launched the Let’s Eat Healthy movement and invites all members of the dairy community to join the effort.
Let’s Eat Healthy strives to ensure children have reduced incidence of obesity and are supported to grow and be healthy, and dairy is valued as a solution to optimal health. In addition, the movement empowers stakeholders to champion community health through nutrition, including teaching and inspiring healthy eating habits and finding solutions to make nutritious foods such as milk and dairy foods accessible and affordable to all.
The makers of dairy foods can also support children’s health by amplifying and sharing research and recommendations that reaffirm dairy’s important role in children’s growth and development.
We invite fellow members of the dairy community to come together, join the movement and collectively enable change that is far greater and more impactful than what any single organization can do on its own. Learn more at HealthyEating.org/Join.