New Toddler Diet Recommendations Are Awesomely Simple — With One Glaring Exception

Toddlerhood is a time of rapid growth and development, which means these kids need just the right combination of nutrients to thrive.

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A toddler eating in a high chair.
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In late September, leading nutrition experts released updated Healthy Eating Indexes — scoring systems that grade how Americans stick to recommendations on a healthy diet. For the first time, the group added a Healthy Eating Index for toddlers, aged 12 to 23 months. And like nearly every other toddler parent, there’s almost certainly no way your kid is getting a passing grade.

Healthy eating for toddlers is, for the most part, like healthy eating for kids and adults older than 2 years: eating enough foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and proteins, and not consuming an excessive amount of sodium and refined grains. But there are two notable differences.

First, the Healthy Eating Index recommends that toddlers avoid added sugar completely. In contrast, children and adults age 2 or older are recommended to limit added sugar to less than 10% of total calories.

Secondly, there is not a limit on the amount of saturated fats toddlers may consume. People older than age 2 are recommended to limit saturated fats to less than 10% of energy intake.

The Healthy Eating Index grading system has 13 components, 9 of which are about getting enough of certain foods with nutrients we need to thrive, and 4 of which are about limiting foods that should be eaten in moderation. It uses the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, as the gold standard for what toddlers and older children and adults should be eating. The researchers found that scores across the lifespan for Americans are “suboptimal,” with the highest scores being for toddlers (63.4 out of 100) and adults aged 60 or older (59.5 out of 100).

According to a paper on the development of the Healthy Eating Index for toddlers, the Index doesn’t place a limit on saturated fat for toddlers because fat is necessary for the brain growth and development that occurs rapidly at this age, and restrictions on fat could have detrimental effects. However, that doesn’t mean toddlers can eat an unlimited amount of saturated fat, because there must be enough room in their diets to eat all the fruits, veggies, whole grains, and proteins they need.

In another paper, the authors explained why toddlers should not eat any added sugars: “Due to their lower caloric intake relative to high nutrient needs, infants and toddlers have virtually no room in their diet for added sugars…In addition, taste preferences are being formed as complementary foods are introduced and there is a risk that young children consuming a diet high in added sugars may develop a preference for sweet foods.”

When children hit their second birthday, they shouldn’t immediately go from following the recommendations for toddlers to the recommendations for older kids and adults, the researchers wrote. Rather, the transition should be a more fluid process, including the addition of added sugars and limiting of saturated fats.

The researchers acknowledged that what toddlers eat isn’t all that matters when it comes to diet. “Guidance from other countries including Canada and Brazil have also recognized that ‘healthy eating is more than the food you eat’ and ‘diet is more than intake of nutrients,’ respectively. For example, Brazil recognizes that the ‘modes of eating,’ including eating with family, friends, or colleagues, influence health and well-being.” Future iterations of the Healthy Eating Index for toddlers may take such factors into account.

The Healthy Eating Index for toddlers also leaves room for breast milk or formula, as about a third of toddlers aged 12 to 18 months in the U.S. drink breast milk. However, it isn’t necessary to; breast milk and formula can be replaced with complementary foods and drinks, such as whole cow’s milk.

If you suspect your toddler isn’t scoring high on the Healthy Eating Index, you’re far from alone. But no matter what your toddler’s diet consisted of in the past, you can make small improvements to raise their score and support their development.

So skip the cake on your baby’s first birthday; they can wait until their second birthday to begin their sugar addiction.

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