Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study 2002
Mathematica's Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study (FITS), conducted in 2002 and sponsored by the Gerber Products Company, is a treasure trove of information about the diets of more than 3,000 infants and toddlers. Initial findings released in late 2003 showed that infants and toddlers were consuming too many calories and eating inappropriate foods as young as four to six months. Although they were meeting their vitamin and mineral requirements, many babies showed signs of the unhealthy diet adopted by much of the American adult population. For example, many were eating high-calorie foods such as french fries and drinking sweetened beverages.
Additional analyses of the FITS data in 2005 answered questions about what, when, and how much of different foods young children ate and the nutrients these foods provided. The analyses pointed to a continuation of some unhealthy patterns, noted some positive findings, and offered tips for parents looking to improve their children's diets. Detailed findings were published in a January 2006 supplement to the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (JADA). Highlights included the following:
Sources of Nutrients
- Fruit and vegetable intakes did not meet recommendations. In fact, one-fourth to one-third of children six months of age ate no fruits or vegetables on a given day, contributing to less than adequate fiber intakes.
- Over half of toddlers consumed too much sodium.
- Dietary supplement use increased with age. Among toddlers and, to a lesser extent, infants 6 to 11 months, fortified foods and supplements made substantial contributions to intakes of many vitamins as well as minerals such as iron and zinc. The combination of supplements and fortified foods may increase the risk of excessive intakes.
Portion Size and Energy Intake
- Analyses that looked at the relationship between portion sizes, energy density (more calories per ounce), and the number of times children had something to eat or drink over the course of the day provided suggestive evidence of energy self-regulation behaviors, especially among infants.
- Infants and toddlers who ate more often during the day tended to consume smaller portions. Among infants, those who consumed more energy dense diets tended to consume smaller portions. This relationship was not noted for toddlers, suggesting that, in this age group, the innate ability to adjust for changes in energy density may be disrupted.
- Communicating this finding to parents and caregivers is important, so they can be more sensitive to infants' and toddlers' cues of hunger and satiety and avoid feeding behaviors that can disrupt natural energy self-regulation and promote excessive food consumption.
Hispanic Infants and Toddlers
A major contribution of these new analyses sheds light on Hispanic infants' and toddlers' diets. The researchers looked at usual energy and nutrient intakes and types of food consumed, and compared meal and snack patterns. Hispanic infants were more likely to be eating cultural foods such as soups, rice, and beans. Other findings for this group included:
- Overall, Hispanic infants and toddlers had nutritionally adequate diets, similar to non-Hispanic infants and toddlers. However, both groups consumed more calories than their estimated requirements. Hispanic infants and toddlers were more likely to be eating fresh fruits and less likely to be eating baby food or canned fruits.
- Hispanic toddlers consumed a higher proportion of calories from carbohydrates and were more likely to be drinking fruit-flavored sweetened beverages and eating sweets such as cookies.
Mothers' Feeding Practices
- Half the meals and snacks eaten by infants and toddlers were consumed away from home.
- Lunches eaten by toddlers at day care were higher in calcium than those consumed at home or at away locations, primarily because of the dairy products served.
- Maternal characteristics associated with more nutritious feeding of infants and toddlers were being older, having a college education, and having breastfed the child.
Lessons for Parents and Caregivers
- With few exceptions, healthy infants and toddlers can obtain needed amounts of nutrients from breast milk, formula, and complementary foods.
- Energy self-regulation mechanisms appeared to decline in the second year of life. Parents and caregivers must learn to be more sensitive to children's hunger and satiety cues, allowing children to make decisions about how much and even whether to eat.
- There is a need to limit sodium intake and increase potassium intake. Encouraging a daily diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and milk is beneficial.
- Parents and caregivers should model healthy eating behaviors.
About the Study
The Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study, a national study conducted from March through July 2002, collected data on the eating habits and dietary intakes of more than 3,000 children 4 to 24 months of age from across America. FITS investigated infant and toddler food choices and portion sizes; examined the relationship between food intakes and self-feeding; and determined whether the Institute of Medicine's standards for Dietary Reference Intakes for energy, vitamins, and minerals were being met. The study consisted of two primary components: (1) a 24-hour dietary recall administered to parents or primary caregivers, with a second dietary recall collected for a random subsample; and (2) a questionnaire administered to parents or primary caregivers that collected information on family socioeconomic and demographic characteristics, knowledge and attitudes toward infant feeding, and child growth and development. The interviews were conducted by telephone, using the computerized dietary recall system from the University of Minnesota.
Read about our FITS 2008 study.
Journal of the American Dietetic Association (JADA), supplement (January 2006)