JULY 27, 2021 — For the past decade, Alaskans have watched the Play Every Day campaign create new messages with younger kids. We’re still focused on supporting children to get daily activity and choose healthy foods and drinks, but we’re trying to start those habits earlier.
This summer, we invited a handful of families from Anchorage to Wasilla to work with us and create new messages. Moms and dads sat their little kids — no more than 8 months to 24 months old — in a highchair. Then they put plain, unsweetened yogurt in front of them. And we waited.
An 8-month-old boy grabbed a container full of yogurt and waved it around. He dug his fist into the yogurt and crammed it into his mouth. Another toddler grabbed a spoonful of yogurt and ate it, too, along with broccoli and unsweetened oat cereal.
It turns out little kids would eat the healthy options they were offered. No added sugar was needed.
And that’s the message shared in Play Every Day’s new 30-second video: It matters what we serve our kids during the early years. The flavors and variety of foods given to toddlers can influence the type of foods they’ll choose and enjoy later in life. Research shows that increasing the number of times you serve unsweetened, unsalted foods and drinks can decrease your child’s preference for sweet and salty options as they grow up. Reducing added sugar also lowers their chances for developing serious health problems later, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Added sugars are sugars that are added during food processing, not sugars that occur naturally in foods like whole fruits.
“Kids often surprise their parents,” said Diane Peck, registered dietitian with Alaska’s Physical Activity and Nutrition program that runs Play Every Day. “Parents may worry children won’t like foods and drinks if they’re not sweetened or packaged in labels that show fun colors or cartoon characters. Little kids enjoy many unsweetened foods and drinks right away. And even if they don’t like them at first, it’s worth giving it another shot. Keep trying to serve these unsweetened options to your kids, because chances are they’ll eventually eat and drink them.”
The value of starting early
Diseases developed over a lifetime can often be prevented in childhood. That includes chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, some cancers and other conditions that go on for a long time and often don’t go away completely. Choosing foods without added sugars and serving water or plain milk to children when they are little can help protect them from developing these diseases many years later.
Play Every Day’s new messages support a new recommendation from the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans to cut out all added sugars in foods and drinks for toddlers under the age of 2. Young children eat such small quantities of food, so every bite matters. Establishing healthy eating habits between birth and age 2 supports brain development and growth in young children. Healthy eating means offering many different types of foods rich in vitamins and minerals and delaying sweet foods and drinks. It’s also important to wait to offer solids or liquids other than human milk or infant formula until children are about 6 months of age or developmentally ready to begin to eat solid foods.
Healthy foods for toddlers include whole grains like oatmeal, whole wheat bread, and whole-grain crackers; fruits and vegetables; lean meats and dairy; and a small amount of healthy fats, such as avocados and olive oil.
“The early years are all about taking the taste buds for a test drive,” Peck said. “Parents can introduce their little kids to a wide variety of healthy foods when they are ready to try them. What’s served early on often becomes a habit, and those early habits pay off later to prevent diseases that can develop over a lifetime.”
Added sugar sneaks into foods and drinks marketed for toddlers
Families know that cake and cookies have a lot of sugar. Many other foods and drinks marketed for children can hide a large amount of added sugar, including cereals, flavored milk, sweetened yogurt and some (but not all) grab-and-go purees of fruits and vegetables.
Serving only water, plain cow’s milk and unsweetened, fortified soy milk is a great way to start cutting out added sugar. Consuming sugary drinks before age 2 can increase children’s chances of drinking more sugary beverages later in life, which then increases their chances for related long-term diseases and cavities. Soda comes to mind quickly as a sugary drink, but other sweet drinks are marketed to children. Those include sports drinks, powdered drink mixes, vitamin-enhanced waters, fruit drinks and punch. What looks like 100% fruit juice often isn’t. A drink can have a fruit in the name or a fruit pictured on the label and have very little or no fruit juice. Flavored milk, like chocolate milk, adds teaspoons of sugar to plain cow’s, soy or other plant-based milks. Then there’s a newer drink called toddler milk or toddler formula, which often includes added sugar that little kids don’t need.
How to spot and avoid added sugar by looking at the label
Families can look at the Nutrition Facts label on foods and drinks to make sure they’re choosing options with no added sugar. Sugar can go by many names, including sucrose, honey, corn syrup and more. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires added sugars to be listed in a special line under “Total Carbohydrate.” Look for this line that says “Includes Added Sugars.” A food or drink has no added sugar if this line says “0 grams.”
Some foods are sold with and without added sugar. The yogurt that the toddlers ate during filming of Play Every Day’s new message was plain yogurt with no added sugar. Families can find that yogurt in large tubs or small portable containers. If children are old enough to eat berries, families can add blueberries or another fruit to naturally sweeten the yogurt without adding honey or other types of sugar.
Packaging can be tricky for pureed fruits and vegetables that are sold in pouches, tubes or small containers. These are very convenient for families on the go, but they can include added sugar. Fruit and vegetable pouches, such as unsweetened applesauce, are available with no added sugar and are a healthy option for little children.
Find and share Play Every Day materials
Play Every Day will be sharing more of its new messages for families in the coming months on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and playeveryday.alaska.gov. The webpage housed on the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services website is currently unavailable, but repairs are underway. Email email@example.com to request print and other materials to share in schools, preschools, child care centers, doctors’ and dentists’ offices, and other locations.
Play Every Day is a campaign with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services to help Alaska children grow up at a healthy weight and encourage families to be physically active and choose healthy foods and drinks. For more information, visit www.playeveryday.alaska.gov.