From 500-calorie desserts disguised as coffee drinks to greasy, salt-encrusted French fries, we adults usually know when we’re making unwise food choices. But often we don’t realize that many of the foods we routinely give babies are essentially junk food – high in calories, sugar, or salt, and low in nutrients.
Eating junk food is more damaging to babies than adults. That’s because babies don’t need many calories, but they do need lots of nutrients. It’s easy for them to fill up quickly on junk food’s empty calories, leaving no room for nutrient-rich healthy foods, says doctor and American Dietetic Association spokesperson Christine Gerbstadt. The nutrition deficit can even hinder development, she adds.
So what’s a parent to do? Start by learning which popular foods to stay away from. Here’s our list of the worst foods for babies.
It seems too obvious to mention, but believe it or not, some babies are served soft drinks as early as 7 months of age, according to a survey of more than 3,000 families presented at the American Dietetic Association (ADA) conference in 2009.
Whether regular or diet, soft drinks provide absolutely no nutrients. Regular soda contains a ton of sugar, which can wreak havoc on your baby’s teeth. And filling up on either type means babies eat and drink less of the nutritious food their bodies really need.
Sure, it comes from fruit, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. The fiber in fresh fruit is largely lost in the juicing process, and what’s left is a whole lot of sugar. “Juice is basically a waste of calories,” says pediatrician Ari Brown, co-author of Baby 411: Clear Answers and Smart Advice for Your Baby’s First Year.
Using certain types of juice – specifically apple and pear – to sweeten your baby’s food isn’t a good idea either, says nutritionist Leanne Cooper, author of What Do I Feed My Baby: A Step-by-Step Guide to Solids. The sugars in these juices can speed up the food’s passage through the digestive tract. “When food passes too quickly, the body doesn’t have time to absorb all those lovely nutrients,” says Cooper. It can also lead to diarrhea in some babies.
What about advertisers’ claims that juice provides babies with necessary vitamin C? Don’t be fooled. “Babies can easily get their vitamin C from one small serving of fruit,” says Brown.
What should your baby drink instead? The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that babies younger than 6 months drink nothing but breast milk or formula. Babies 6 to 12 months old can have small amounts of water, but breast milk or formula should still be their main beverage. (Find out more about when babies can drink water.) After the first birthday, cow’s milk is recommended.
They make convenient snacks once your baby can bite and chew, but it won’t take many to satisfy your little one’s appetite, leaving no room for nutrient-rich foods. Also, just as eating sweet things can help babies develop a sweet tooth, eating salty things can give them a taste for salty foods. The survey presented at the 2009 ADA conference found that nearly three-quarters of toddlers and preschoolers get more than the recommended daily amount of sodium.
The ever-popular fish-shaped crackers fall into this category. “What a waste of calories in a snack,” says Brown. “Fruit slices are a much better choice.” And if you’re looking for an instant grab-and-go snack, low-sugar cereals have more nutritional value than crackers, she says.
People define processed foods in different ways, but in general, the more the food is modified from what was originally caught, raised, or grown – and the longer the list of ingredients – the more processed the food. With heavy processing, foods often lose significant nutritional value and gain unhealthy additives.
“The more processed the food, the more nutritional value tends to go down, and the more the sugar, salt, and fat content goes up,” says Kate Geagan, dietitian and author of Go Green, Get Lean.
The worst processed foods parents serve up are the ones not specifically meant for babies, such as canned pasta, says dietitian Eileen Behan, author of The Baby Food Bible. “They often contain way too much sodium.” You’re better off boiling up some noodles and topping them with a few crushed tomatoes.
“You’d be surprised at how many people think a gelatin dessert is a wholesome food for babies,” says Gerbstadt. Why the misconception? Many people think gelatin contains protein, perhaps because it’s made from processed animal bones and cartilage.
But it doesn’t, says Gerbstadt – at least, not in any significant amount. “What the baby ends up eating is nearly all sugar, artificial color, and artificial flavor, and a trace amount of gelatin to make it wiggly,” she says.
True, gelatin is easy to swallow, but then again, so is Gerbstadt’s own idea of a healthy dessert: a baked, mashed apple with a sprinkle of cinnamon. “It’s naturally sweet and has good fiber, vitamins, and a yummy, smooth texture,” That’s what I would opt for!