Home Body Nutrition 6 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Healthy Eating in Early Childhood

6 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Healthy Eating in Early Childhood

Coming up with healthy meal plans every day gets exhausting, and dealing with time or budget constraints can also make it quite stressful. However, this task is worth every effort when you’re a parent.

Your children’s food intake is your sole responsibility at first. As they grow, they will follow your example in choosing which foods to eat. You’ll eventually have to consider the quality of school lunches and other meals they eat outside of the home. But if you lay a good foundation at an early age, your children will care about staying healthy and they will independently make good food choices.

Read on to learn about some of the benefits of healthy eating in early childhood, as well as some resources on how to make sure your young child eats well.

The Main Ways That Good Nutrition Can Improve Your Child’s Health

1. Eating Well Aids Brain Development

Numerous studies have shown that eating well is a major part of childhood brain development (American Society for Nutrition 2019).

Children who don’t receive a good balance of nutrients are likelier to lag behind in school. But the effects of bad nutrition manifest well before school age. For babies who are growing up in impoverished circumstances, it was shown that cognitive growth can be improved with additional macronutrients (Hurley et al. 2019). The infants become more expressive and more receptive to communication, compared to babies without access to these nutrients.

If you’re a new parent, you should know about the importance of the “first 1000 days” (Cusick & Georgieff 2016). A significant part of the brain’s ultimate structure is formed before the age of 3, and good nutrition at this age is crucial. This means making sure that your young child gets enough proteins, fatty acids, and minerals. Choosing a healthier diet improves brain capacity, which will be a significant advantage at every point of your child’s development.

2. A Poor Diet Can Cause Iron Insufficiency

As mentioned above, brain development hinges on the child receiving a good balance of nutrients, and that includes sufficient iron levels. Young children with low iron levels are at a higher risk of developmental delays, and their growth is slower as well.

Anemia is the most significant consequence of iron insufficiency. This condition comes with various health risks, including poor appetite and breathing issues, and it is also linked with behavior issues in early childhood and beyond. Decreasing the risk of anemia is among the major benefits of healthy eating in early childhood.

But it’s important to mention that providing your child with iron-rich foods isn’t enough to keep them safe from iron insufficiency. You should also make sure they have a fruit- and vegetable-rich diet, as high vitamin C levels improve iron absorption rates.

A Note on Breastfeeding

The WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding at the beginning of a child’s life, calling it the “basis of early childhood development” (Bustreo 2016). This has many proven benefits, such as aiding the social and emotional development of the baby. Breastfeeding also benefits the mother in some ways – for example, it decreases her chances of cancer and postpartum depression, and even acts as a form of birth control.

But it’s especially important to note that breastfeeding improves iron levels in infants. It can also prevent anemia. If breastfeeding isn’t an option, the best alternative is iron-fortified formula. Cow’s milk (or soy milk) isn’t an adequate replacement in the first year of the child’s life (Özdemir 2015), so it’s important to consult with an expert.

3. The Link Between Nutrition and Mental Health

There is a growing body of research (O’Neil et al. 2014) on how children’s dietary patterns impact their mental health. It is clear that children and adolescents who eat poorly tend to have worse mental health – specifically, this study showed that are likelier to have anxiety or depression. The potential reasons for this include:

  • Magnesium, zinc, and folate insufficiency can lead to depression
  • Omega-3 insufficiency has been linked with anxiety disorders
  • High-fat diets can have a negative effect on brain development, leading to depression
  • An unhealthy diet also leads to inflammation and immune problems, which is also linked to poor mental health

Keep in mind that poor mental health often leads to worse dietary choices. Children and teenagers who are struggling with depression or anxiety might be tempted to skip meals. Some will opt for so-called comfort foods instead of a full meal, and they are at a higher risk of disordered eating in general. But children who form good dietary habits at an early age may be less prone to these problems.

4. Poor Food Quality Is a Top Cause of Obesity

According to recent research (Volger, Rigassio Radler & Rothpletz-Puglia 2018), almost 14% of US preschoolers are obese. It seems likely that this percentage will keep growing, especially among low-income families. Childhood obesity is becoming a worldwide public health issue.

The reasons behind this problem are complex – for instance, it is undeniable that children are getting less exercise than the previous generations. But children’s weight status is also strongly impacted by the food they eat. By teaching children to control their portion sizes and pay attention to their diet quality, you can equip them with the best possible defense against obesity.

5. An Unhealthy Diet Puts Your Child at Risk of Cardiovascular Problems

Obesity in early childhood causes a wide range of health problems, as well as emotional issues like stress and embarrassment. But the impact on their heart health is especially troubling.

For example, it’s a mistake to assume that high cholesterol levels only affect adults. Children who have sugar-rich diets are at a high risk of cholesterol issues.

High blood pressure is another concern that parents may be tempted to wave away. Children younger than 6 years old usually only have blood pressure issues as a consequence of a related medical problem. But over the age of 6, children are at risk of high blood pressure if their diets are inadequate.

A Note on Testing

Since cholesterol testing requires fasting, it is not recommended for children under the age of 2. But above that age, testing may be a good idea, especially if the child is obese.

6. Eating Habits Are Formed at an Early Age

The physical benefits of healthy eating in early childhood can’t be overstated. But don’t forget that simply learning about healthy foods is also an important part of your child’s development.

Experts say that the first three years are the most important period in forming a child’s taste and habits (Caton et al. 2017). While infants don’t have many innate food preferences, the period between weaning and 36 months changes this – at this time, they are receptive to new foods, and they form preferences based on taste, texture, etc. The parent’s role in this is immense, so make sure to expose your child to a wide range of healthful foods.

After the age of three, the social aspect of mealtimes becomes increasingly important. Beyond just learning table manners, your child will follow your example in everything to do with eating. You can do a great deal to teach them how to enjoy healthy food.

What Can You Do?

When it comes to nutrition, your goal is straightforward. Your child needs high-quality food, with the right balance of nutrients, as well as enough water. It’s also important for them to avoid overeating.

In many families, children develop a preference for unhealthy snacks, which leads to conflicts around mealtime. Our additional resources address some of the specific problems that parents face when it comes to healthy eating. Mealtime conflicts can be resolved with patience and determination – but if you teach your children to eat well when they’re young, these problems will become less likely.

Additional Reading:

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