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Groundbreaking child care feeding study to aid obesity prevention efforts

10/14/2013  8:00 am

How day care providers feed their children may be just as important as what they feed them in helping address the childhood obesity epidemic, according to a new University of Illinois study. With more than 12 million preschoolers regularly attending day care and eating up to five meals or snacks per day there, the providers play an important role in helping shape children’s health.

In 2011, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics released a position statement regarding feeding practice guidelines for day care providers to promote healthy eating at their centers. The guidelines recommend that providers model and encourage healthy eating, support development of children’s awareness of hunger and fullness cues, serve meals family style, and not pressure the children to eat.

According to Family Resiliency Center and Human & Community Development Professor Brent McBride, who led the study, adhering to the Academy guidelines is a public health priority since one in four pre-school-aged children is overweight or obese. These children are at greater risk for developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease later in life.

“There have been millions of dollars in federal money spent on getting nutritional foods into childcare centers,” said U of I researcher Dipti Dev, who conducted the research with McBride. “But how do you get the children to eat those foods? If you don’t focus on how we feed the children then you’re missing a crucial piece of the puzzle.”

The Illinois research is the first study to evaluate whether child care providers are adhering to the Academy’s feeding practices guidelines. Researchers collected data from 118 childcare providers from one of three types of centers: Head Start schools, centers receiving federal reimbursement for food, and licensed child care centers.

The results of the study indicated that most providers were promoting healthy feeding by serving nutritious foods and were not pressuring children to eat or restricting them from eating. However, the researchers found big differences among the three types of providers.

“Although not perfect, we found that Head Start had the best policies and feeding practices,” said McBride, who also directs the campus Child Development Laboratory pre-school. “For example, one of the guidelines recommends that teachers eat with the children as a way of modeling healthy eating habits. Head Start teachers were more likely to do that because they are required to do so.”

The study also revealed that Head Start teachers and staff were more likely to allow the children to serve themselves rather than give them pre-portioned meals or snacks. This family-style meal service enables children to learn how to regulate how much they eat.

One other finding indicated that all of the providers needed to improve how they helped the children recognize their feelings of hunger and fullness. “Instead of asking the children, ‘Are you done?’, the teachers should ask them, ‘Are you full?’ or ‘Does your tummy feel happy?’,” explained Dev, who is developing a packet of best feeding practices to share with providers. “Asking the right questions can help the children listen to their hunger and satiety signals.”

The U of I research was published in the October 2013 Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; it was funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services-Administration for Children and Families and the U of I Family Resiliency Center.