Guest column: Healthy eating should start in childhood | Reviews and editorials

There is a dangerous trend in Louisiana that is putting children’s health at risk. Last week, half of the toddlers in our state probably ate fruit less than once per day. And 65% of them ate vegetables less than once a day.

As a physician, I know this problem can lead to obesity in children and increase the risk of chronic disease later in life. But there are steps policymakers can take now to put more fruits and vegetables on children’s plates.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed 18,000 parents in 2021 about their children’s consumption of fruits, vegetables, and sugary drinks. Recently published results, based on a snapshot of the diets of children ages 1 to 5 over a week, show that one in three did not eat a fruit every day and almost half did not eat a vegetable every day. State-by-state data shows the results for Louisiana are even more dismal.

We know that studies show that adults who follow a low-fat, plant-based diet — rich in fruits and vegetables — get protective benefits from many diseases and conditions, including heart attack, diabetes, and stroke, as well as cancer and obesity. But this diet also reduces the risk of heart disease in obese children by improving their weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels, according to a Cleveland Clinic study.

Research also shows other benefits for children who eat a healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables.

One study reports that they experience less severe symptoms of inattention than ADHD, while another documents improved mental state among schoolchildren who ate more fruits and vegetables. The effect of early weight gain on other chronic diseases has been documented in a study that showed childhood obesity may lead to high blood pressure later in life.

So, in our state, where more than one in four children live in poverty and one in five children face hunger, what can be done to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables and drink less sugary drinks?

First, let’s make sure our food assistance programs have the greatest impact.

Congress should fully support and expand the Gus Schumacher incentive program, which improves access to fruits, vegetables, beans, and grains for participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Lawmakers should also pursue legislation that would expand the availability of plant-based meals in the National School Lunch Program. And the federal government could move forward with proposed changes to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, commonly referred to as WIC, which would provide a greater amount and variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and non-dairy alternatives to recipients.

But there is more that can be done. For example, the state could add flexibility to Medicare and Medicaid to include prescription programs that put fruits and vegetables in the hands of those most in need and those with chronic diseases.

Families and community partners across the state should support educational programs, such as cooking classes, that put vegetables and fruits front and center in fun, collaborative, and practical ways. Parents should start by modeling healthy eating habits for their children.

A lot is at stake if the trends outlined in the CDC’s latest report are not curtailed. Children will grow into unhealthy adults with chronic diseases that will be passed on to their families, negatively affecting future generations.

Let’s make Louisiana a national leader in making sure every child in the state gets healthy meals.

Ronald Quinton, MD, a board-certified cardiovascular surgeon and culinary medicine specialist in New Orleans, is the medical director of the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane University School of Medicine.