Preschoolers Not Getting Enough Fiber

January 28, 2005

(University Park, Pa) — A Penn State study of diets from a nationally representative sample of U.S. preschoolers between the ages of two and five shows that more than three-quarters of the children are not getting enough fiber.

Children who consumed the most fiber also had the most nutrient-rich diets. However, all children in the study ate fewer dairy servings than recommended by the Food Guide Pyramid.

“There is clinical evidence that children with low fiber intakes are at risk of chronic constipation,” says Dr. Sibylle Kranz, assistant professor of nutritional sciences and leader of the study. “However, there are also other reasons to encourage fiber consumption in children. For example, fiber has been shown to lower cardiovascular risk in adults. Children who eat high-fiber foods are more likely to grow up into adults who consume adequate fiber.”

The study is detailed in the February issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association in a paper, “Dietary Fiber Intake by American Preschoolers is Associated with More Nutrient-Dense Diets.” The authors are Kranz; Diane C. Mitchell, coordinator of the Penn State Diet Assessment Center; Anna Maria Siega-Riz, associate professor of maternal and child health, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; and Dr. Helen Smiciklas-Wright, Penn State professor of nutritional sciences.

In the study, dietary consumption estimates were based on two-day averages of 5,437 children whose parents provided information in the 1994-1996 and 1998 Continuing Survey of Food Intake by Individuals conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The researchers conducted separate analyses on the two- and three-year-olds and the four- and five-year-olds and compared them.

The younger children had, on average, a higher fiber intake than the older children. The two- and three-year-olds, whose fiber intake placed them in the top quarter of the sample, met the new National Academy of Sciences Dietary Reference Intake level. These guidelines propose that Americans of all ages consume 14g total fiber per every 1,000 calories based on evidence for reduced cardiovascular disease risk at that level.

The main fiber sources consumed by the children were, in order: low-fiber fruits such as applesauce; legumes; and high-fiber cereal. Other low-fiber, low-nutrient foods that contributed very small amounts of fiber to the children’s diets included pizza and other high-fat, grain-based mixed dishes and high-fat salty snacks such as chips. High-fiber vegetables and fruit, which should be a major source of fiber, were consumed in too small quantities to contribute to the total average fiber intake.

“If parents feed their preschoolers fiber-rich foods, they are most likely providing important nutrients for the children as well,” Kranz says. “An easy substitution to get more fiber into their diets is to change to whole-grain products and high-fiber cereals. Also, children usually like sweet potato, baked beans, grapes and oranges and they're all high-fiber, high-nutrient foods.”

The study was supported by a seed grant from the Penn State College of Health and Human Development.

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Editors: Dr. Kranz is available at (814) 865-2138 or sxk72@psu.edu. For additional information, please contact Barbara Hale, science and research information officer at Penn State, at (814) 865-9481 or bah@psu.edu.