The Importance of Nutrition Education During Early Childhood

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children at the tableKnowing the benefits of good nutrition for health is important at any age, however good habits must start young. Parents, caregivers, and early childhood educators all play a role in modeling and teaching healthy nutrition habits. Nutrition education in early childhood can begin to teach children the connection between food and health. Through this aspect of education children are exposed to a variety of learning experiences about foods and nutrition that help develop positive attitudes that lasts a lifetime.

According to a 2020 report published in the National Library of Medicine, as early as two years of age, childhood overweight and obesity is common. This factor increases the likelihood of continued obesity into adulthood. Obesity is a chronic disease that will result in impaired physical and mental health throughout the individual’s life span. Obesity can lead to chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. According to the 2019 Richmond County Community Health Assessment, in comparison to neighboring counties, Richmond County had higher rates of heart disease and its components such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, as well as diabetes which could lead to the need for kidney dialysis, a loss of extremity or vision. The mortality rate from heart disease in Richmond County is also higher than our neighboring counties.

Just as poor dietary habits are linked to chronic diseases that begin at an early age, research shows that good nutrition habits early in life can lead to positive outcomes both mentally and physically. To prevent obesity and other chronic diseases during childhood, early nutrition education should begin during the first two years of life. This begins with educating expectant mothers about the best recommendations to nourish the newborn child. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends breastfeeding for the first two years. Breastfeeding protects children from many diseases, boosts brain development, and guarantees a safe and nutritious food source. The World Health Organization(WHO) recommends that children nurse within the first hour of life and fed breast milk exclusively for the first six months. Ideally, breastfeeding should continue until at least two years of age.

It is important that parents, caregivers, and early childhood educators work together to ensure that everyone is aware of essential nutrition facts for growing children. The reality is that poor diets during early childhood can contribute to health risk. For example, a diet low in vitamin A may not only weaken a child’s immune system but put the child at risk for poor vision.

Increasing Opportunities for Early Childhood Nutrition Education

N.C. Cooperative Extension’s SNAP-ED department offers a dynamic curriculum called “Color Me Healthy”! This fun and interactive curriculum introduces children ages 5 and under to the components of MyPlate, which consists of fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, and proteins. There is music with follow-along songs that the children love to dance and sing to reinforce eating healthy foods. Children also participate in sensory exercises such as tasting colorful fruits, veggies, whole grains, proteins, and dairy. Color Me Healthy also encourages children to make healthy drink choices by providing water bottles for young learners. Centers offering the class can apply for a mini-grant for the children to plant their garden at their daycare, head start, or Pre-K center. Research shows that when we grow our own food, we are more likely to eat it.

Parents of children in the program receive a parents’ companion booklet and weekly newsletters with recipes, notes and tips to guide them on the journey to teaching their young ones healthy nutrition habits. Color Me Healthy classes are taught by N.C. Cooperative Extension Agents; in Richmond County, contact Cheri Bennett at 910-997-8255 if you would like to bring this program to your early childhood center. There is no charge for the program.

To learn more about nutrition education programs sponsored by N.C. Cooperative Extension contact N.C. Cooperative Extension-Richmond County Center, located at 123 Caroline Street, Rockingham, NC or call 910-997-8255.