DALLAS - As toddlers begin eating "grown-up" food, they may also develop grown-up eating habits - like too much junk food and too few vegetables, warn doctors who want parents to change their ways.
Within the childhood obesity outbreak is an increasing number of overweight 2-year-olds, according to pediatrics experts. In an effort to address the problem, the American Heart Association is offering this advice to parents: Children 2 and older should eat mostly fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat and non-fat dairy products, beans, fish and lean meat.
"These guidelines are not that different from what you as a parent should be following," said Lona Sandon, a dietitian and assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. "Kids will follow the example of their parents if the example is there."
Of course, in a nation where dinner often comes from a takeout window, keeping kids healthy may require a change by adults.
"We've gotten away from preparing foods at home," Sandon said. "We are eating foods that are much higher in fat and calories and larger portion sizes. We've gotten away from physical activity."
The new recommendations for infants, children and adolescents revise the heart association's 1982 statement. Since then, more and more children have been falling into the overweight or obese category. The updated guidelines, which are endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, also recommend children 2 and older get an hour of exercise a day.
Dr. Barbara Dennison, who helped draw up the guidelines and is associate professor of clinical pediatrics at Columbia University, said that 10 percent of 2-year-olds are overweight, doubling the rate from the mid-1970s.
"The whole idea of a nutritionally balanced diet has been compromised," said Dr. Samuel S. Gidding, another adviser on the AHA recommendations and professor of pediatric cardiology at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. "I think that fast foods have become - rather than being discretionary choices - the main stop for meals."
He said that 30 to 50 years ago, foods that were nutritional were considered "kids' foods." Now, he said, kids' foods are viewed as sweets, snacks or so-called comfort foods.
The heart association notes that by the time kids are 19 to 24 months, french fries are the most commonly eaten vegetable. Experts say that as jars of baby food packed with fruits and vegetables give way to solid foods, nutritious food is often bypassed for whatever is easiest.
The heart association guidelines urge parents not to give up if their kids at first reject healthy food. Experts say it can take up to 10 tries for a child to accept a new food.
Said Dr. Nancy Krebs, co-chair of the task force on obesity for the America Academy of Pediatrics: "It takes a bit of persistence."