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Talking to Patients about the Benefits of Diet Diversity in Early Life

December 15, 2020 6 min read

introducing diverse diets to babies

By Dr. Carina Venter, PhD, RD, Associate Professor, Pediatrics-Allergy/Immunology, University of Colorado School of Medicine

 

Early life nutrition plays an important role in modulating the microbiome, training the immune system and helping to prevent diseases later in life. This article introduces the important concept of Diet Diversity early in life, discusses its lifelong benefits, and provides talking points for clinicians to use with families to help support them on their infant feeding journey. 

Diet Diversity - What It Is and Why It Is Important 

Diet diversity is gaining traction as a critical, but often overlooked component of infant and early life nutrition. It is defined as the number of different foods, food groups or food allergens eaten over the first year of life.

Given the importance of dietary diversity, it is unfortunate that most commercially available infant foods lack in dietary diversity, and most notably, do not contain allergenic foods that should be introduced early in life [1]. Parents must actively take care to ensure their children benefit from a diverse diet early in life. 

The Many Benefits of Dietary Diversity 

It is important for children to consume a diverse diet because it may indicate a better quality diet. Diet diversity early in life has been shown to positively affect the microbiome[2] and nutrient intake [3-12]. Studies have also shown some association between diet diversity and positive growth outcomes [4, 12-19], for example height for age scores. Importantly, a more diverse diet may also reduce the likelihood the child will become obese. [21-23]

Dietary Diversity and Food Allergies

Research supports that regularly eating a diversity of food allergens may help a baby safely eat these foods for life. 

One study in particular showed that increased food allergen diversity (number of food allergens eaten; milk, egg, wheat, fish, soy, peanut, tree nuts, sesame) during the first year of life is associated with reduced food allergy outcomes in later childhood. In fact, for each additional food introduced by 6 months, the odds of developing food allergy over the first 10 years of life were reduced by 10.8%. Similarly, for each additional allergenic food consumed by 1 year, there was a significant reduction of 33.2% in the likelihood of food allergy over the first 10 years of life.  

Clinician Talking Points to Help Families with Dietary Diversity

  1. The variety of foods matter.  A variety of food  is more important than the amount of food. Even for young babies who have just started eating, it is better to feed 1-2 teaspoons of different fruits, vegetables and grains than to only feed cereal for 3-5 days or longer.
  2. Allergens included. Most commercially available infant foods do not contain a diversity of common allergens. Parents should supplement with the most commonly allergenic foods: peanuts, tree nuts (almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, and walnuts), milk, shellfish (shrimp), egg, fish (cod and salmon), grains (oats and wheat), soy, and sesame.
  3. Consistency is key: Once an allergen has been introduced, it should stay in the diet. Like any great habit, research shows the immune system works best when it’s exposed to a wide variety of foods regularly throughout a child’s early years. 
  4. Diverse diet has diverse benefits.  A healthy and diverse diet has benefits beyond the immune system and allergic conditions. A diverse diet indicates that the child has a better quality diet by eating more nutrients. This is important for growth and development. 
  5. Decrease obesity risk. Increased diet diversity may also reduce the likelihood that the child will become obese – but remember that the diet has to contain a variety of healthy foods such as vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, healthy fats and protein foods opposed to unhealthy foods.
  6. Every food counts!  There are no cut-offs for high and low diversity. If toddlers become extremely picky or food allergic children are afraid of trying new foods, just remember, every food counts. Eating five foods is better than eating four. 

 

About the author: Dr. Carina Venter is a PhD Registered Dietician and Associate Professor of Pediatrics in Allergy and Immunology at University of Colorado School of Medicine. She has focused her research and clinical practice over the past 20 years on the prevention, diagnosis and management of food allergies and other allergic diseases.

 Dr. Carina Venter

Sources: 

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