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Nearly half of preschool-age kids aren’t eating their veggies

Young children aren’t eating daily vegetables and fruits, but they are drinking sugar-sweetened beverages, report shows

Illustration by Talia Trackim/The Washington Post; iStock
5 min

New data shows many young children are not consuming fruits and vegetables daily and are regularly consuming sugary beverages.

In 2021, a third of children age 1 to 5 did not eat a daily fruit and nearly half did not eat a daily vegetable during the preceding week, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the same time, 57 percent drank a sugar-sweetened beverage at least once during the preceding week, the report found.

In Oklahoma, Tennessee, Louisiana and Mississippi, more than 70 percent of young kids did not eat a daily vegetable in the preceding week. The percentage of children who did not eat a daily fruit or vegetable was highest among Black children and lowest among non-Hispanic White children.

In 40 states and the District of Columbia, more than half of children drank a sugar-sweetened beverage at least once during the preceding week (in Mississippi, it approached 80 percent). And parents reported that more than 70 percent of Black children drank a sugar-sweetened drink in the previous week.

U.S. dietary guideline recommendations take aim at sugar for children and adults

That children avoid fruits and vegetables like the plague and gravitate toward sugary drinks will surprise no one. And chiding harried parents about a lack of broccoli and too much soda in a child’s diet can sound judgmental and, at worst, classist or racist.

But obesity is up among kids, especially among Black and Hispanic children, and experts warn that it’s hurting children’s overall health. “This should be a wake-up call. It’s a pretty shocking situation when you have a certain population more likely to consume a sugar-sweetened beverage than a vegetable,” said Peter Lurie, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.

This is the CDC’s first analysis of data from the 2021 National Survey of Children’s Health, which used paper- and web-based questionnaires to collect information from parents on the health and well-being of American children up to age 18.

Parents were asked how frequently their child consumed three types of foods in the previous week. For vegetables, they were told that french fries, fried potatoes and chips didn’t count, and for fruit, they were told that juice didn’t count, said Heather Hamner, a CDC senior health scientist and author of the report. The agency specified that fresh, frozen or canned fruits and vegetables were all fine, she said.

She said 1-year-olds were doing okay, eating plenty of fruits and veggies, but for older preschool-age kids, things started to get dicey.

“They start off really strong and need to continue that. Children start to be introduced to solid food at about 6 months and should transition to the family diet by about 1 year, consuming a wide range of foods,” Hamner said.

This data underscores the need for strong policies and systems changes to make it easier for children to meet dietary recommendations, said Megan Lott, deputy director of healthy eating research at Duke Global Health Institute.

“Far too many children are consuming sugar-sweetened beverages and not enough fruits or vegetables in a given day. Over the long term, this can have significant negative impacts on a child’s health and well-being,” she said.

What to feed your baby? Dietary guidelines weigh in on pregnant women, infants and young children.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced more-rigorous school nutrition standards for school meals — limiting, for the first time, the amount of added sugar; further reducing the allowable amounts of sodium; and emphasizing whole grains. And for the first time, the most recent dietary guidelines issued by the USDA included guidance for newborns and toddlers, suggesting no added sugars at all for children under 2. The nutrition experts who wrote the guidelines argued that calories from sugar-sweetened beverages may displace those from nutritious foods and increase the risk of a child becoming overweight.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry and American Heart Association went even further, publishing a statement suggesting kids under 5 should not drink any sugar-sweetened beverages at all, saying “overconsumption of unhealthy beverages along with inadequate consumption of healthy beverages in early childhood can contribute to risk of diet-related chronic diseases, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, or dental caries.”

Americans consume an average of 17 teaspoons of added sugar daily. Added sugars intake is higher among adults who are younger, less educated, less affluent and less physically active. With half of American adults suffering from one or more preventable, chronic diseases and about two-thirds of U.S. adults overweight or obese, starting good habits early is essential, nutrition experts say.

Federal nutrition programs and state policies and programs can increase access to fruits, vegetables and healthy beverages, but it remains hard to influence the eating habits of children before they enter school, and food inflation has made the price of fresh fruits and vegetables prohibitive for many low-income families. Jamie Bussel, who studies childhood obesity for the nonprofit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, says 25 million American families report that they are experiencing food insecurity.

Higher food prices around the country are pushing more Americans to food banks

During the pandemic, the food assistance program for mothers, babies and toddlers bumped up the benefit for fruits and vegetables. That enhanced benefit is funded through September via Congress’s omnibus spending bill passed at the end of 2022. The USDA has the opportunity, through the proposed WIC (Women, Infants and Children) food package revisions, to make the increase permanent for families across the country, said Tim Ward, communications director for the National WIC Association.

The challenges may be even greater than the CDC reports, said Lurie. He said that parents have a strong incentive to feel good about or to rationalize what they are feeding their kids, especially pickier eaters who might rather go hungry than eat a carrot. And as every parent knows, you can lead a kid to healthy foods, but you cannot always make them eat them.

“There may be a response bias there. It could well be worse,” he said.