Habits Start Forming In Early Childhood
What do juice boxes, toy-fortified kid meals, chocolate-covered granola bars, and single-serving sugar-bomb cereals hawked by cartoon characters have in common? These “grab and go” foods have little nutritional value and are directly marketed to young children. Many parents appreciate quick, easy foods children will eat without a fuss.
Unfortunately, while convenient, this kind of sugary, junky food is one culprit contributing to today’s childhood obesity predicament.
Other factors include: not enough fruits and vegetables, too many sugar-sweetened drinks, too much sedentary time in front of TV and other media, and not enough physical activity.
Won’t Most Children “Grow Out Of” Childhood Obesity?
Twenty-three million (one in three) American children are overweight or obese. We used to believe that overweight children had “baby fat” they would naturally grow out of. We now know that when a young child becomes overweight or obese it is usually very difficult for them to reach and maintain a normal weight. Half of all children who are obese at age six will be obese in adulthood, continuing to face health and other challenges.
According to Robert Wood Johnson’s childhood obesity researchers, today’s children could be the first generation to “live sicker and die younger” than their parents because of childhood obesity.
Overweight or obese children are at higher risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and other health problems in their childhood years and in adulthood. They feel more stressed and anxious than healthy-weight peers and miss more school.
Early Childhood May Be Key To Preventing Obesity
Many health experts believe that teaching and establishing healthy habits in early childhood holds tremendous promise for reversing the epidemic of obesity. After all, it is easier to initiate good habits than to turn around bad ones!
Important environmental changes that support children’s pathway to healthy weight have emerged in the past few years – like updated USDA nutrition standards for school lunches and snacks, and restrictions on marketing junk food to children.
Many schools, child care settings, and families work hard to provide children healthier food, more opportunities for active play, and limited screen time.
Young Children Develop A Foundation of Healthy Habits
Environmental changes are important, but not enough. Children benefit when they learn to take care of their bodies and make healthy choices.
The 5-2-1-0 Model, recommended by medical experts, provides clear guidelines for teaching children daily habits that promote health and prevent overweight and obesity.
5 – fruits and vegetables
2 – hours or less of screen time (TV, computer, tablets, smart phones, etc.)
1 – hour or more of physical activity
0 – sugar-sweetened drinks
How Can 5-2-1-0 Help Young Children?
The 5-2-1-0 concepts are concrete and specific enough to be taught to young children. Unlike complicated information about proteins, carbohydrates, calories, or food groups, young children “get” that fruits and vegetables are healthy choices! They can understand that screen time is a quiet, stay-still activity, and that children’s bodies get strong through active, run-around play time.
Teaching children to make positive choices every day that align with 5-2-10 practices creates a foundation of healthier habits that can promote good health over their lifetime.
5-2-1-0 Practices and Healthy Choices For Children
5 Fruits & Veggies
Many younger children eat fruits and vegetables. However, as children get older, most eat fewer fruits and vegetables and consume more salty, sugary, fatty foods. By the teen years and adulthood, few Americans eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. Guiding young children to eat five fruits and vegetables each day – including for snack time– can develop the habit of consciously choosing nutritious foods over less healthy, junk foods.
- Teach children that eating fruits and vegetables will help them be strong and healthy. For ideas about creating fun, healthy snacks for young children, click here.
2 Hours or Less of Screen Time
Despite years of recommendations by pediatricians to limit children’s screen time, American children are clocking up many hours on TV and other media in their homes. Out and about, young children can be found tapping and scrolling on hand-held devices – in grocery carts, car seats, at restaurants, you name it. The amount of time spent with screens only increases as children get older. Screen time is largely sedentary, and replaces more active and creative play that children are likely to pursue when no screens are available.
- Teach children that too much TV and other screen time is not a healthy choice, and that growing bodies need to move around. For a reproducible parent note about the importance of limiting screen time, click here.
1 Hour of Exercise
Most American children get less than half the recommended amount of daily physical activity. Healthy bodies need the muscle development and raised heart rate that comes when children run, jump, dance, and just play. Providing plenty of time and space for active play for young children can establish a habit of exercise that leads to more fit teens and adults.
- Teach children that active play is not only FUN, but it makes their heart healthy and muscles strong! For suggestions about lively, active ways children can play click here.
0 Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Juice
More than sweet treats like cookies or candy, sweetened drinks are the largest source of added sugar in children’s diets. Offering almost no nutritional value, sweetened drinks often replace actual food for children. Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is considered a key contributor to weight issues. Even 100% juice – long seen as healthy for children – has the same amount of sugar as soda. Currently, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends “no more than 4-6 ounces of 100% juice daily.” Many physicians go so far as to say that even 100% juice is not a necessary part of a healthy diet for children. Actual fruit is a more nutritious choice.
- Teach children that water and milk are “anytime” drinks that are good for their bodies. To see some lively Pinterest suggestions for encouraging children to drink more water, click here.
Adults Can Help Young Children Get A Healthy Start
Teaching children what they need to know, in fun and age-appropriate ways, equips them to create a brighter future. Adults CAN make a difference in preventing childhood obesity. Starting in the early years is key.
AcornDreams Healthy Choices Resources
The following easy-to-use tools align with 5-2-1-0 guidelines and can help equip you to teach young children about making healthy choices and recognize them when they do.
- Al’s Healthy Choices children’s book
- Healthy Al, Healthy Me 7-lesson curriculum
- “I Make Healthy Choices” stickers
- Healthy Choices package
- Free resources for home and classroom