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Giving Junk Food to Babies Surely a Formula for Ills

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The two women are leading nutrition researchers and mothers with grown children. They know junk food. They know how challenging it can be as parents to make healthy food choices for their kids. They have packed their share of lunches and after-school snacks.

"I see unwise choices every time I visit a mall," said Wahida Karmally, director of the Irving Center for Clinical Research at Columbia University and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Parents are giving their infants and toddlers soda instead of milk. The kids are eating french fries, which keeps them quiet while the parents shop."

Judith Stern, a University of California at Davis researcher, recently stopped by the table of one mother and her 2-year-old son eating a fast-food meal. Stern couldn't resist a conversation while waiting for a plane.

"I said to the mother, `Gee, he's a little young to be eating here,'" Stern said.

The mother acknowledged it wasn't the healthiest of choices. She routinely splits a McDonald's Happy Meal with her son, which in her mind makes the option better.

What Stern noticed was that the mother and toddler were sipping on a cola rather than milk or water.

"One item I can't see giving any toddlers or children 5 and under is soft drinks," Stern said. "It is one of the fastest ways for young kids to become overweight."

Stern and Karmally can tell you plenty more stories, such as Stern's recent unsuccessful attempt to persuade a late-night Burger King clerk to sell her a child's 10-ounce diet soft drink rather than the "small" adult size of 22 ounces.

But the two researchers can now refer to evidence beyond the anecdotal. A study presented at the recent American Dietetic Association annual meeting in San Antonio revealed some disturbing data about what American parents are feeding their infants and toddlers.

It might even be worse than you think.

In a randomized 2002 telephone survey, about 3,000 parents and primary caregivers were asked to detail what their children ages 4 months to 2 years ate that particular day. About 40 percent didn't eat fruit. Only two-thirds consumed vegetables - and the most common veggie choice for kids 15 months and older was a serving of french fries.

The study was commissioned by baby-food maker Gerber Corp. and conducted by an independent research firm in conjunction with the Tufts University School of Medicine. A full report will be published in January's Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

The parents admitted that 20 percent of the kids 19 to 24 months ate fries every day, while 10 percent of 9- to 11-month-olds did the same. Twenty-five percent of the kids 19 to 24 months old consumed hot dogs, bacon and/or sausage daily.

Nearly 40 percent of the children 19 to 24 months old drank at least one sugary fruit drink each day - typically the kids who were not eating fresh fruit - and one of 10 kids was already downing a daily soda. One dietitian making the presentation at last week's meeting said she knew of mothers who were putting soft drinks in baby bottles for kids as a young as 7 months.

On behalf of kids under 12 months, pediatricians everywhere must shudder. Twenty-nine percent of the surveyed adults said they allowed their infants solid food before the recommended 4 months. What's more, 17 percent allowed juice before 6 months, and 20 percent were serving cow's milk to infants before their first birthdays.

It's no wonder an estimated 10 to 15 percent of preschoolers are considered overweight by the time they're 5.

"Infants and toddlers are consuming too many empty calories, just like their parents and other adults," Karmally said. "We need to understand obesity is a serious disease and that diabetes, heart disease, stroke and hypertension follow in its shadows."

Karmally said that a child with a steady diet of french fries, chicken nuggets and soda will develop taste preferences for sweet, salty and soft foods rather than a full range for the palate.

Stern has fast-food outlets squarely in her sights.

"I am thinking about starting Mothers Against Super Sizing," she said, only half-kidding. "I challenge fast-food choices to be both healthier and appropriate for serving size."

Stern mentioned the caloric overload of Happy Meals, especially for toddlers.

"Why can't younger kids get milk, fruit and a truly mini-burger at McDonald's?" she asked. "That's age-appropriate. The Happy Meal toys are age-appropriate. The food needs to follow suit."


(Bob Condor writes for the Chicago Tribune. Write to him at: the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611.)


(c) 2003, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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