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UK toddlers’ diet 'cause for concern’

Young children getting too much energy, protein and salt, but not enough iron or vitamin D

Caroline White

Wednesday, 06 April 2016

UK toddlers are consuming more calories and protein than they need, but not getting enough dietary vitamin D or iron, potentially putting them at risk of obesity and other health problems in later life, finds research published today in the British Journal of Nutrition.

The researchers from collected data from 2,236 children in 2008-9 from one of the UK's largest dietary datasets for toddlers, the Gemini twin birth cohort.

They found that the daily calorie intake of toddlers was 7% higher than recommended by public health nutrition guidelines. Protein intake was around three times higher than recommended, with almost all toddlers exceeding the recommendations set by the Department of Health.

At 21 months, almost two thirds (63%) of children exceeded the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) recommended daily intake of 968 calories, with an average intake of 1,035.

On average 40 g of protein was consumed daily, when the maximum recommended for children aged 1-3 is 15 g. Salt intake was almost three times higher than the recommended 0.5 g and fibre intake among many of the children was 8 g — half the recommended amount.

Almost 70% of children did not meet the recommended daily dietary intake of 6.9 ug of iron while average vitamin D intake was 2.3 ug/day, which falls far short of the 7 ug recommended by government guidelines.

To ensure the data were broadly representative of the UK population, the researchers compared the Gemini data with those from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS).

Similar findings were observed, suggesting that the high intakes of energy, protein and salt, and low intakes of vitamin D and iron in young children are widespread across the UK.

Lead study author, Hayley Syrad, of the Department of Epidemiology & Health at University College London, said: the findings suggested that “the current diets of young children in England are a cause for concern.”

He added: “We know that dietary preferences and habits are established during the first two years of life and that what we eat in early life can have an enduring impact on our health.”

"The evidence points to increased protein intake in early life as a risk factor for obesity later on," he said.

He continued: “Given the associations between inadequate vitamin D and poor health, this underlines the importance of the current government recommendations that all children aged 6 months to 5 years should take a daily supplement containing vitamin D.”

Parents needed more guidance on the appropriate diet for their children, he suggested.

“There is no silver bullet when it comes to tackling obesity, but what is known is that the healthier start children have, the more likely they are to continue on that trajectory through their life, observed  Professor Neena Modi, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. “Therefore obesity must be tackled using a life-course approach.”

“Women who want to get pregnant should maintain a healthy weight before conception and continue this throughout pregnancy. Once baby is born, healthcare professionals must do more to support women to breastfeed and parents to provide a healthy lifestyle. This should also be supported by experiences and learning at school,” she said.

"The Local Government Association’s Community and Wellbeing spokeswoman, Cllr Izzi Seccombe, said that intervention at a young age was vital “if we are to avoid the risk of children having major health problems later on in life, such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes.”

Increasing evidence showed that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life were critical in establishing future potential health risks, she added.

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