As a physician, I know that this problem can lead to childhood obesity and increase the risk of chronic disease later in life. But there are steps policymakers can take now to put more fruits and vegetables on children’s plates.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed 18,000 parents in 2021 about their children’s consumption of fruits, vegetables and sugary drinks. Recently published results, based on a week-long snapshot of the diets of US children aged 1 to 5 years, show that one in three did not eat a fruit daily and almost half did not eat a vegetable daily. State-by-state data show that the results for Louisiana are even bleaker.
We know that studies show that adults who consume a low-fat vegan diet – rich in fruits and vegetables – gain protective benefits from many diseases and conditions, including heart attack, diabetes and stroke, as well as cancer and obesity. But this diet also lowers the risk of heart disease in obese children by improving their weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels, according to a Cleveland Clinic study.
Research also shows other benefits for children who eat a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables.
They experience less severe symptoms of ADHD inattention, one study suggests, while another study documents improved mental well-being among school-age children who eat more fruits and vegetables. And the effect of early weight gain on other chronic diseases was documented in a study that showed childhood obesity can lead to hypertension later in life.
So in our state, where more than one in four children live in poverty and one in five is hungry, what can be done to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables and drink less sugary drinks?
First, let’s make sure our food assistance programs are making the biggest impact.
Congress should fully support and expand the Gus Schumacher Incentive Program, which improves access to fruits, vegetables, beans and grains for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participants. Lawmakers should also pursue legislation that expands the availability of plant-based meals in the National School Meals Program. And the federal government may move ahead with proposed changes to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, commonly referred to as the WIC, which will provide a greater quantity and variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and non-dairy alternatives to recipients.
But there is even more that can be done. For example, the state can add flexibility to Medicare and Medicaid programs to include prescription programs that put fruits and vegetables in the hands of those most in need who suffer from chronic illnesses.
Families and community partners across the state should support educational programs, such as cooking classes, that put vegetables and fruits at the forefront in fun, collaborative, and hands-on ways. And parents themselves should begin to model healthy eating habits for their children.
The stakes are high if the trends shown in the latest CDC report are not reduced. Children will become unhealthy adults with chronic illnesses that are passed down to their own families, harming generations to come.
Let’s make Louisiana a national leader in ensuring that every child in the state has access to healthy meals.
Ronald Quinton, a thoracic-cardiovascular surgeon and board-certified specialist in culinary medicine in New Orleans, is medical director of the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane University School of Medicine.