SAN ANTONIO -- Even before their second birthday, many American children are developing the same bad eating habits that plague the nation's adults -- too much fat, sugar and salt and too few fruits and vegetables.
A new study of more than 3,000 youngsters found significant numbers of infants and toddlers are downing french fries, pizza, candy and soda.
Children aged 1 to 2 years require about 950 calories per day, but the study found that the median intake for that age group is 1,220 calories, -- an excess of nearly 30 percent. For those 7 months to 11 months old, the daily caloric surplus was about 20 percent.
"By 24 months, patterns look startlingly similar to some of the problematic American dietary patterns," said an overview of the Feeding Infants & Toddlers Study, commissioned by baby-food maker Gerber Products Co.
Recent research has found that roughly one in every five Americans is now considered obese, double the rate in the mid-1980s.
"We're on a very dangerous course if we do not make some changes in helping parents step up to the plate and be role models," said Chicago-area dietitian Jodie Shield, who has written two books on child nutrition.
"Across cultures, it's a positive thing to overfeed your chubby little baby," said Dorothy DeLessio, a dietitian at Brown University Medical School in Providence, R.I. But she added that Americans were crossing over to negative patterns of "round-cheeked overweight toddler, overweight preschooler, overweight child, overweight adult."
An overview of the FITS study was presented Saturday at a meeting of the American Dietetic Association. The complete study results are to be published in the association's journal in January.
The study involved random telephone interviews conducted in 2002 that asked parents or primary caregivers what their youngsters ages 4 months to 2 years ate that particular day.
Up to a third of the children under 2 consumed no fruits or vegetables, according to the survey. And for those who did have a vegetable, french fries were the most common selection for children 15 months and older.
Nine percent of children 9 months to 11 months old ate fries at least once per day. For those 19 months to 2 years old, more than 20 percent had fries daily.
Hot dogs, sausage and bacon also were daily staples for many children -- 7 percent in the 9-to-11 month group, and 25 percent in the older range.
More than 60 percent of 12-month-olds had dessert or candy at least once per day, and 16 percent ate a salty snack. Those numbers rose to 70 percent and 27 percent by age 19 months.
Thirty to 40 percent of the children 15 months and up had a sugary fruit drink each day, and about 10 percent had soda.
Shield said early diets strongly influence children, whose food preferences are generally shaped between ages 2 and 3.
"If kids are having soda and soft drinks at such an early age, it's going to be very, very challenging to introduce other types of foods for them later," she said.
The study also found that parents were ignoring widely accepted practices by allowing:
29 percent of infants to eat solid food before they were 4 months old.
17 percent to drink juice before 6 months.
20 percent to drink cow's milk before 12 months.
Shortcomings were more pronounced for families receiving financial assistance through the federal Women, Infants and Children program, the study found. More than 40 percent of WIC toddlers did not eat any fruit on the survey day, and those children also drank more sweetened drinks.