AHA Releases Guidance on Creating Healthy Diet Habits in Children

The latest scientific statement from the association highlights the importance of healthy diet at a young age on preventing CVD later in life.

With cardiologists, and physicians across all specialties, constantly stressing the importance of a healthy diet, the American Heart Association's (AHA) latest statement provides much-needed evidence-based suggestions on establioshing healthy eating behaviors in children.

The statement, which is the first from the AHA to provide evidence-based strategies for creating a healthy food environment for young children, aims to reduce risks of obesity and cardiovascular disease later in life through development of positive eating behaviors at a young age.

"Parents and caregivers should consider building a positive food environment centered on healthy eating habits, rather than focusing on rigid rules about what and how a child should eat," said Alexis C. Wood, PhD, the writing group chair for the scientific statement and assistant professor at the U.S. Department of Agriculture/Agriculture Research Services Children's Nutrition Research Center and the department of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, in a statement.

Published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, the 15-page document was composed by Wood and a group of 13 colleagues on behalf of the AHA’s Council on Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health, Council on Epidemiology and Prevention, Council on Lifelong Congenital Heart Disease and Heart Health in the Young, Council on Cardiovascular and Stroke Nursing, and Stroke Council. The statement itself includes more than 200 references to previous research and discusses topics ranging from prenatal influences to considerations during preschool ages.

After explaining their reasons for and the focus of the statement itself, investigators address the impact of and give recommendations on how to create an appropriate feeding environment for children. Included within this portion of the document is a table outlining appetitive traits and whether they were linked to a positive or inverse direction of association.

The next major portion of the statement addresses caregiver influences on underlying child appetitive traits, including sections related to considerations during infancy, toddlerhood, the preschool period, and prenatal influences.

Specific suggestions highlighted in the document for encouraging development of healthy eating habits include providing consistent timing for meals, allowing children to select foods they want to eat from a selection of healthy choices, serving healthy food alongside foods children already enjoy, attentiveness to verbal or non-verbal hunger and fullness cues, and avoiding pressuring children to eat more than they wish.

The latter half of the document addresses implementation of guidance, including potential challenges, the role of healthy eating habits in children, and the wider socioeconomic context of the statement. Of note, the authors highlighted the importance of understanding not all strategies will be effective for all children.

“It is very clear that each child is an individual and differs in their tendency to make healthy decisions about food as they grow,” Wood said in the statement. “This is why it is important to focus on creating an environment that encourages decision-making skills and provides exposure to a variety of healthy, nutritious foods throughout childhood, and not place undue attention on the child’s individual decisions.”

The statement, “Caregiver Influences on Eating Behaviors in Young Children,” was published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.