A recent study published in Nutrition & Dietetics found that Australian toddlers are consuming more energy than they need . This is an important finding, as excess energy intake overtime can lead to overweight and obesity.

The study found that milk and milk products supplied about a third of the children’s energy intake. This is not surprising as the toddler years are a period of transition from a milk-based infant diet to a varied diet similar to that enjoyed by the rest of the family.

The study highlighted the important nutritional contribution that milk and dairy foods made to the toddlers’ diets. For example, milk and dairy foods supplied over 80% of the calcium, about 60% of the riboflavin, almost 50% of the protein and potassium, and over 40% of the magnesium and zinc in the children’s diets.

What is concerning is that the toddlers got over a quarter of their energy from junk foods such as sweetened drinks, snack foods and confectionary . Unlike milk and dairy foods, these foods are ‘empty calories’ – they supply energy but few essential nutrients. Foods consumed by the 16- to 24-month-olds included cola, sweet biscuits, doughnuts, potato crisps and fruit drinks.

Early childhood is an important time to establish healthy food habits. The Dietary Guidelines for Children and Adolescents in Australia encourage parents to introduce toddlers to a wide variety of nutritious foods – fruit and vegetables, cereals, milk, yogurt and cheese, lean meat, fish, poultry and/or alternatives – in order for them to get enough of the nutrients that are essential for good health .

Commenting on the study, Dr Tim Gill, Co-director of the Sydney University Centre for Public Health Nutrition said “it was quite alarming to find that there were such a high proportion of calories in the diet coming from what we would call energy dense, nutrient poor foods.”

Dr Gill added “Your child should be learning to eat a varied diet and enjoying food. Set a healthy example by enjoying a diet containing plenty of fruit, vegetables, cereals, dairy foods and lean meats.”