Preschoolers Who Eat Healthily Eat Junk, Too, Study Finds

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New research from Ohio State University suggests that young children who eat their vegetables are just as likely to eat junk food.

The research team, led by Sara Anderson, an associate professor of epidemiology at The Ohio State University, found that preschool students from low-income families in Columbus who ate fruit and vegetables and drank milk were just as likely to eat foods high in sugar, salt and fat as children who did not eat as many healthy foods.

“We assumed that children who ate a lot of healthy foods would also be children who did not eat a lot of unhealthy foods,” said Anderson.

Parents or guardians of 357 children between the ages of 2 and 5 years old met with trained interviewers for the study to offer information pertaining to how often certain foods were consumed by their children in the past week.

Parents were asked about their child’s diet, with foods and drinks being categorized by researchers into healthy and unhealthy categories.  While healthy options included fruits, vegetables, and milk, unhealthy options were considered to be sweetened drinks, fast food, sweets, and salty snacks.

No evidence was found linking children who ate healthy foods to being less likely to eat junk foods, no matter their age.  Around half of the children were found to eat fruit two or more times per day.  Some rarely ate vegetables, although over one-third were found to eat them a few times each day.  Most children drank milk at least once per day.

In the week before the interviews took place, only one-third of the children involved did not drink any sugary beverages such as soda and 29% did not eat fast food.

Phyllis Pirie from Ohio State University said that despite a wide-spread belief that encouraging healthy eating lessens eating unhealthy foods, it may not be true, and that efforts to reduce childhood obesity too often focus on adding “good” foods to the daily diet rather than avoiding “bad foods.”  While the study does not mean efforts to get children to eat more healthy foods should be done away with, she does say that the argument that good automatically replaces bad has less strength.

Study results were compared to previous research that showed a person can be highly active and sedentary at the same time.  For example, someone who enjoys running on weekends can also rack up many hours of sedentary time at their desk during the week.

Although more research is needed before policy changes on the topic should take place, researchers believe that a larger national study currently underway could lead to a change in conversations pertaining to improving diets and lowering childhood obesity rates.

The study was conducted in 2012 and 2013 as part of a larger project supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and appeared in the December 2015 issue of the Maternal and Child Health Journal.