By: Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN
Adequate nutrition is a critical part of health and development, and a growing body of research suggests that nutrition education needs to begin earlier and consider the whole child. As a result, urgency is being placed on the importance of optimal nutrition during pregnancy, infancy and early childhood to provide positive, lifelong health benefits.
Health experts agree that optimal nutrition during the first 1,000 days, the time period from conception through age 24 months, has positive health benefits during childhood and into adulthood. It is thought that risks for chronic diseases such as obesity, hypertension and diabetes may be programmed by nutritional status during these first few years, a unique time frame when the foundations for optimal health, physical growth and neurodevelopment are established and the stage is set for a lifetime of health benefits.
During pregnancy, a healthy eating pattern for the mother means optimal nutrition for the baby. Nutrition education for pregnant women should emphasize eating patterns that are based on whole foods, including dairy, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy oils, to ensure both mother and baby get several key nutrients needed for maximizing physical growth and brain development. By consuming a variety of foods from all food groups, pregnant women can help ensure they are getting enough protein, iron, zinc and fatty acids, key nutrients that are particularly important for brain development, which is occurring most rapidly during the last trimester of pregnancy and the first two to three years of life.
Healthy eating patterns continue to be important throughout childhood, contributing to the overall health and well-being of children. Increasingly, education is shifting toward a more holistic view of health, addressing the needs of the whole child by going beyond physical needs to include social and emotional well-being. Exposure to environmental toxins, chronic stress and other adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, is known to have negative long-term effects on children’s physical, emotional and cognitive development that continue into adulthood. Experts believe that preventing ACEs could significantly decrease rates of depression, asthma, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and obesity, while improving education and employment potential. Addressing the needs of the whole child is important for the long-term well-being of children and families.
At the same time health education is shifting toward a more holistic approach, food and nutrition education is becoming more complex due to a rapidly changing food supply and a climate crisis. Nutrition education is evolving to balance social and emotional learning while also factoring in these additional concerns. Through concepts such as shared meals, tasting activities and cultural food experiences, educators can teach children about nutrition and build essential life skills while also addressing sustainability by discussing agriculture and the effects of food waste.
Today, there are more food options available and consumers, including children, are constantly being marketed to through highly targeted food advertisements in places they live, work and play, including the digital space. Unfortunately, what is advertised to children and families as the latest food product on the market may not be the healthiest or best choice for good nutrition. To support the health of children and their families, educators can provide critical thinking activities and nutrition education to help students understand the difference between healthful and unhealthful foods. When children and their families are able to decipher for themselves how to interpret and counter the potentially harmful effects of food advertising, they are empowered to make healthier food choices to support their growth, development and lifelong health. Providing food and nutrition education earlier and addressing factors affecting the whole child will support optimal health, physical growth and neurodevelopment in childhood, setting the stage for a lifetime of health benefits.
Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN
Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN
Kristal is the project manager of nutrition science and a registered dietitian nutritionist.
The whole child approach helps create nurturing school environments that buffer the effects of adverse childhood experiences.
Emphasizing the quality of foods within food groups is key to consider in the development of future dietary guidelines and healthy eating patterns.