Dietary and physical activity habits in preschoolers
The acquisition of knowledge about healthy behaviours and its development into healthy attitudes, and subsequent healthy habits is especially important during early childhood. Behaviours are formed largely through the influence of the children’s immediate environment, including lifestyle habits and socioeconomic determinants. The assessment of dietary and physical activity habits in very young children is a particular challenge for investigators, since it raises the issue of the reliability of information provided by parents, who may provide, instead of an accurate assessment, what they consider to be the correct answers.
To address this concern, we compared self-reported dietary and physical activity habits of children with the parental assessment of these same habits. Our results showed that most of the items evaluated were in agreement between parental and children except for those that the parents recognized as representing unhealthy habits such as commercially baked goods, hour spend watching TV or playing videogames every day.
Also interesting, children’s dietary and physical activity habits were associated with those of their parents. The main determintants of healthier behaviours in children were higher parental age, mothers’ healthy habits, and higher awareness of human health. Socio-economic characteristics of the household also played a role: a lower socioeconomic status was associated with modest scores for vegetable and fish consumption, skipping breakfast, fast-food intake, and choosing pastries for breakfast. In addition, children from low socioeconomic households reported the lowest consumption of olive oil and the highest of rice and pulses (lentils, beans, chickpeas), products that are associated with purchasing power.
Given the difficulty of changing socio-economic indicators, interventions that include strategies to increase parental responsibility for the whole family’s health will increase the opportunities for their children to adopt a healthier lifestyle. This intervention should begin with parents and their children in their early years, when there is a window of opportunity for instilling life-long healthy behaviours.
This research is part of a comprehensive school intervention (Program SI!) aiming at promoting cardiovascular health through the acquisition of healthy behaviours in children aged 3 to 5, including also their proximal environment (parents, teachers, and school). The efficacy of this intervention after three years of follow-up is currently being evaluated in the city of Madrid (Spain) in a total of 24 schools (2062 children and their parents).