WEDNESDAY, Sept. 1, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Considering the plethora of sugary drinks and snacks on supermarket shelves, it may seem like kids have many more opportunities to eat poorly than ever before.
But new research suggests the diets of one group of children -- preschoolers -- aren't any worse than they were in the 1970s, and may actually be a bit better on the nutritional front. There's a catch, though: They're eating more overall -- including sugar.
Daily food consumption among preschoolers grew by 200 calories. That's an increase of about 20 percent, according to the study in the August issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
"They're getting nutrients, but they're also getting more calories, and that's what contributes to the obesity problem," said study co-author Sibylle Kranz, an assistant professor of nutritional sciences at Pennsylvania State University.
With an eye toward children aged 2 to 5, Kranz and colleagues examined statistics from several national studies of American food consumption completed between 1977 and 1998.
The good news is the diets of preschoolers appear to be improving -- they're eating more whole grains and fruits and vegetables.
"When it comes to diet quality, they're doing better than they did 20 years ago," Kranz said. "More parents know to give their children fortified cereals and maybe whole grain breads, compared to the 1970s when there was not much information out there on these eating habits and how beneficial they are."
Even so, other studies suggest that the diets of preschoolers still don't include enough fruits and vegetables, said Jeannie Moloo, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
On the down side, Kranz said, "there's the issue of obesity."
Preschoolers are eating more added sugar than in the past, according to the study, along with what the researchers call "excess" juice products -- more than what the children should be drinking. "Many parents give their preschool-age children juice drinks thinking they are providing a good source of nutrition. Unless the beverage is 100 percent fruit juice, it is basically sugared water," Moloo said.
Overall, preschoolers are eating 1,400 to 1,600 calories a day, about 200 more than the previous 1,200 to 1,400, Kranz said.
While the diets may not make the kids fat, they might influence what they eat later on, she said. "It could be they're getting used to flavors and textures. Introducing something like broccoli when a child is older may not go over as well if they've never had it before. With wide food variety, they're more accepting of new foods."
Besides introducing foods to children, parents influence their kids through their own diet, Moloo said.
"Parents need to take a look at their own eating habits and make sure they are setting a good example," she said. "They can have a tremendous influence on the foods provided to their preschoolers. They need to make the most of this influence to ensure their children develop healthy eating habits to last a lifetime."
Get tips about nutrition for preschoolers from Child & Family Canada.