Is Day Care Making Our Kids Obese?

September 7, 2012 | | Baby Talk, Bites for Big Kids, Food for Tot | No Comments

For many of us, our kids spend a good amount of time each week at day care. If they eat two or more meals there daily and receive snacks, they may be eating more at day care than they are at home. According to a study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the Journal of the American Dietetic Association), parents of day care kids may not be in control of what their children are given to eat or the messages they are learning about food, hunger, fullness and nutrition.

The study examined the current practices that exist in many states to target obesity prevention in young children and found that most states have very minimal requirements for healthy eating and physical activity in child care settings. This lack of requirements leaves state policies somewhat open to interpretation by individual child care settings – which can be problematic if the people in charge of your particular day care don’t really understand the importance of nutrition for children. The truth of the matter is that many day care centers don’t measure up to expectations.

Day care centers that qualify for government financial assistance must meet specific guidelines regulating that foods for children be high in nutrients but low in sugar, fat and salt. Additionally, regulations dictate that children in government funded programs must get enough grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy and protein to meet ½ to ⅔ of the daily amounts recommended. Researchers found, in Texas, for example, that fewer than half of 3-year-olds got enough vegetables, grains or dairy products to meet ½ the daily recommended amount. Programs that do not receive government funding are not held to standards like those mentioned above and have virtually no guidelines on the types of foods they can serve to children.

What about the eating environment? The study also found that the messages kids receive about hunger and fullness in the day care setting may not promote healthful eating. Researchers found that adults often commented about how much or how little a child had eaten, without asking the child if they were feeling hungry or full. The study pointed out that promoting an environment of “clean plates” or rewarding children for finishing everything they are given to eat does not teach kids to respect their own cues for hunger and fullness, and sets them up for a lifetime of overeating which we all know can lead to problems with weight.

So what can you do? Pick your day care setting carefully. Ask how meals are prepared and served. Can older children serve themselves or are they given a portion and expected to eat it? Ask to see a menu and look for variety of foods representing the various food groups. Is milk or water offered regularly at meals or is juice the only option? Fried foods, sugary snacks and lack of fruits/vegetables should be a red flag. Open communication between you and your day care provider is the first step to making your child’s environment a healthier one.

Article mentioned: “What Role Can Child-Care Settings Play in Obesity Prevention? A Review of the Evidence and Call for Research Efforts” by Nicole Larson, PhD, MPH, RD, Dianne S. Ward, EdD, Sara Benjamin Neelon, PhD, MPH, RD, and Mary Story, PhD, RD. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Volume 111, Issue 9 (September 2011) published by Elsevier.

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