Oklahoma Preschoolers: Starving for Nutrition

Tuesday, November 24, 2015 -

Is it possible for your child to be fed plenty of food and still be under-nourished at his or her child care center? Researchers at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center say the answer is “yes.” 

Their new study found many Oklahoma child care centers provide plenty of calories in the meals they serve but often not enough of the right nutrients for growing minds and bodies. Researchers say that adds up to too many empty calories, which may contribute to childhood obesity and malnourishment. 

“We don’t usually think of malnourishment when we see kids who are chubby, overweight or obese. We don’t think of them being malnourished.  But many of those energy rich foods that have contributed to the level of that child’s obesity are completely void of nutrition. So they’re eating plenty of calories, but they’re not getting what their bodies  ̶  their brains, their hearts and their bones  ̶  really need to grow up to be really healthy and strong,” said researcher Susan B. Sisson, Ph.D., R.D.N. Sisson is an assistant professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the OU College of Allied Health.

Researchers studied 25 Oklahoma child care centers in both rural and urban areas of the state, observing more than 400 preschool-aged children. Their goal was to measure the dietary intake of all of those children. They focused on how the food served to those children was prepared, what the children actually ate and how much they ate so that we could calculate what they actually consumed,” Sisson explained.

Researchers also got recipes and brand names so that they could accurately calculate the number of calories consumed as well as do a nutritional analysis of the meals.  
They found that only a fourth to a third of child care facilities in the state serve meals that contain too many calories.  So that means, most children are getting the appropriate number of calories.  
“So the fact that the calories were well within the dietary reference intakes was a little bit of a surprise, because we have such a prevalence of overweight and obesity in young children in our state,” Sisson said. 

Their research revealed that the trouble may not be too many calories but instead too many empty calories. In fact, researchers found that most of the child care centers’ meals were lacking in key nutrients like iron, calcium, folate and zinc.  In addition, many children were served and consumed far too much protein, up to three times what their bodies need.  

“An active child requires only about 1,200 to 1,600 calories a day, and that’s an active child. So every bite they take has to be packed with nutrients. They don’t have room in their diet to have a lot of fluff foods that are void of nutrition simply because they need so many nutrients for growth and development, but they don’t need a lot of calories,” she added. 

Sisson said there is nothing wrong with an occasional meal of pizza and ice cream as long as the majority of the meals are healthier ones. To accomplish that, Sisson and research colleagues suggest that more child care centers fill little one’s plates with nutrient-rich foods, such as whole grains, fruit, vegetables and legumes. 

“Those are the foods that are providing a lot of nutrition per bite. So per calorie you’re getting more nutrients. And those foods also happen to be lower in calories. So they can be eating a much larger meal that is still not going to be excessive in calories and that’s going to be providing them a lot of extra nutrition,” Sisson said.

Sisson and other researchers at the OU College of Allied Health say parents can and should play a role in helping ensure proper nutrition for their children while at home and at day care. They suggest talking with those at your child's daycare or preschool to find out what they're serving for meals and snacks. Then be an advocate for healthy options.

The research was published in the journal Public Health Nutrition. Other researchers involved in the project include Andrea H. Rasbold, Ruth Adamiec and Leslie K. Sitton of the OU College of Allied Health; Michael P. Anderson and Janis E. Campbell of the OU College of Public Health and Diane P. Horm of the Early Childhood Education Institute at OU – Tulsa Schusterman Center.

University of Oklahoma HSC