Study shows only 10% of toddlers eat enough vegetables

21 March 2018
toddler eating

A new Australian study finds that fewer than 10% of toddlers eat enough vegetables, but 90% eat "junk" food.

The study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, is the first to assess the intake of fruit and vegetables in children from nine-months to five-years of age.

The Deakin University research found that although more than 90% of children met Australian Dietary Guidelines for fruit and vegetable intake at nine months that number plummeted to less than 10% by 18-months of age and stayed low after that.

Fruit intake was better than vegetable intake, with most children meeting the guidelines at nine and 18 months, however this reduced later and by five-years of age, only a third of children met the guidelines.  

Australian guidelines recommend that children under two years of age do not eat any discretionary or "junk" foods, and yet fewer than 10% of children met this guideline.

Discretionary or “junk” foods become a more substantial part of the diet as children age and by three-and-a-half years of age, discretionary foods provide more than a quarter of a child's total energy intake.

Lead author Dr Alison Spence says this is a concern as sets children up for unhealthy food preferences and increases their risk of being overweight or obese.

"The food that children eat during early childhood, from birth to five years, is a key influence on their short-term health and can influence their weight and health into later childhood and even adulthood.

"The World Health Organisation has identified early childhood as a key life stage for nutrition promotion and obesity prevention. The 'first 1000 days' - from conception to two years of age - is considered a particularly crucial time for influencing lifelong health,” she says.

"The diets of young children are critically important for their current and future health and this study shows that they are missing out on key food groups like fruits and vegetables and eating too much junk food from an early age," she said.

Dr Spence said a further concerning finding was that children who ate more discretionary or “junk” foods at nine months of age tended to continue to eat more of these foods as they got older.

"Introducing children to junk foods at a very young age, even in small amounts, may be linked with eating more junk food as a toddler and pre-schooler. This highlights the importance of foods introduced during the first year of life.

"This study also suggests that toddlerhood is a critical point for action, where children's food intakes really diverge from recommendations.

"We need to find ways to ensure young children eat more vegetables and fruits and less discretionary foods to help establish healthy eating habits for life,” Dr Spence says.

"We also need to help support parents and other child carers with practical strategies to encourage young children to eat sufficient vegetables and fruits, and limit discretionary foods, to set them up for a healthy future."

You can learn more about first foods for infants and infant nutrition by doing our online education course.  Register for the course here.