Preschoolers From Lower Income Families Face Health Hurdles
August 23, 2012

Junk Food, Screen Time and Income Linked To Junk Food Consumption In Preschoolers

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

New research from Canada suggests a strong link between TV or video game time, family income and junk food consumption in preschool children.

According to researchers from the University of Alberta, "Preschoolers from low-income neighborhoods and kids who spend more than two hours a day in front of a TV or video-game console have at least one thing in common: a thirst for sugary soda and juice."

As part of a larger study on diet, physical activity and obesity, researchers from the faculties of Physical Education and Recreation, School of Public Health, and Medicine & Dentistry surveyed the parents of 1,800 preschoolers in the Edmonton region. The study is the first to gather data on children of such an early age.

They found that 54.5 percent of four and five year olds from poorer neighborhoods drank at least one soda per week compared to children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds who averaged 40.8 percent. Low income children also drank less milk and more fruit juice, which is linked to rising sugar intake associated with childhood obesity, like soda.

"When you're looking at that age group, and such a large percentage of very young kids in the study are consuming a large amount of soda, it's quite concerning," said study co-author Kate Storey, a registered dietitian and assistant professor in the School of Public Health.

"If you're drinking a lot of soda and fruit juice, that can displace consumption of water and milk, which are important not just for quenching thirst, but for developing healthy bones and teeth, and health and wellness in general."

Similar drinking habits were found among preschoolers who spent more than two hours a day in front of a screen — be it TV or video games. Kids from poorer neighborhoods spent more time in front of screens and drank larger volumes of sweetened beverages than their more wealthy counterparts drink.

"Dietary behavior and intake patterns are influenced heavily by what happens in the first few years with children, and they maintain those patterns throughout childhood and into adolescence," said study co-author John C. Spence, associate dean of research in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation.

"In addition to basic health education, this study identifies a need in how we're dealing with poverty and recognizing there's more to poverty than simply the number of dollars people have. Many families live in places that might not be very healthy for them and, as a result, they make unhealthy food choices."

A companion study involving the same preschoolers also looked at the types of foods they ate and whether they followed recommendations in Canada's Food Guide.

What they found was that just 30 percent of children ate enough fruits and vegetables, and 23.5 percent consumed the recommended amounts of grains. Kids do better with milk and meat, consuming 91 and 94 percent respectively.

The study also found that children from low and medium income neighborhoods were more likely to eat foods like potato chips, fries, candies and chocolate than kids from higher income neighborhoods. Researchers suggest this is because families are choosing high-calorie foods because they are cheap and convenient. However, it could also be a function of the neighborhood they live in.

"There are cities in North America where, literally, you have food deserts. If you wanted to go out and buy some lettuce and tomatoes, you'd have to travel very far–very likely without a car. You're not going to do that every time you want to get some food, so maybe you're going to resort to the convenience store down the road."

At least one glimmer of hope is that children who attended daycare or kindergarten were significantly less likely to reach for junk. Storey said that illustrates how education can make a difference and lead to healthier eating habits, regardless of what's happening at home.

"You can start making a difference in different places. It calls for action in multiple settings, schools and communities, for example. That light-bulb moment can happen in a variety of places."

The study is published in the August issue of Public Health Nutrition, and will be included in the summer edition of the Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research.