Study on toddler dietary patterns lays foundation for future research

A baby of around 6 months of ages sits in a high chair with an adult's partly visible to the side of the image

A Caring Futures Institute paper has for the first time examined the whole diets of toddlers to investigate both nutrition and dental health impacts.  

The research found two distinct dietary patterns: the ‘family diet’ pattern, characterised by vegetables, fresh fruit, non-white bread, cheese and non-discretionary red meat and poultry (common family-based items); and the ‘cow’s milk and discretionary combination,’ characterised by cow’s milk, fluoridated water, white bread, cheese and discretionary foods including processed meat, sugary products, sugar sweetened beverages and discretionary potato products. 

Flinders University nutrition researcher Dr Lucy Bell, who led the analysis on this paper, said that it was common for nutrition studies to focus on intake of selected dietary elements, such as sugar or dairy only, and on only one health outcome 

Rather than focus on particular nutrients or foods, in this study we analysed the whole diet of the study participants, who were Australian toddlers from the Study of Mothers’ and Infants’ Life Events affecting oral health (SMILE) birth cohort,” Dr Bell said.  

“This enabled us to identify dietary patterns and look at their overall impact on both risk of obesity and early childhood caries, or tooth decay. 

“In addition to sugar, there is a range of dietary risk factors for obesity (such as saturated fat, refined grains, processed meat) and poor dental health (such as acidic food), and there are also foods which are protective for teeth, such as dairy, so it’s most appropriate to look at the whole diet. 

“Research on the relationship between whole-of-diet in the first years of life and obesity and dental health outcomes is limited and inconsistent, so this paper is an essential first step in filling a knowledge gap.” 

The team, which included researchers from the University of Adelaide, Curtin University, and the University of Otago, found no statistically significant or clinically meaningful associations between dietary patterns at 12 months and obesity or early childhood caries indicators at 24-36 months, suggesting that these outcomes take longer to manifest.  

“The next step is to study participant data at five to seven years of age, and excitingly, collection of this data is already underway thanks to a recent extension of the SMILE study,” Dr Bell said.  

The SMILE study’s unique approach in bringing together experts in both nutrition and dental health also means that the resulting research can inform interventions that can simultaneously prevent obesity and caries in early childhood. 

“We know that the first years of life are a critical period when dietary behaviours and food preferences are established, so early diet habits influence not only current health, but future health as well.” 

This study is part of the Caring Futures Institute’s Better Lives theme. 


Dietary Patterns and Risk of Obesity and Early Childhood Caries in Australian Toddlers: Findings from an Australian Cohort Study 

by Lucinda K. Bell1, Celeste Schammer1, Gemma Devenish2, Diep Ha3, Murray W. Thomson4, John A. Spencer3, Loc G. Do3, Jane A. Scott2 and Rebecca K. Golley1. 

1 Caring Futures Institute, College of Nursing and Health Sciences, Flinders University, Adelaide 5001, Australia 

2 School of Public Health, Curtin University, Perth 6102, Australia 

3 Australian Research Centre for Population Oral Health, School of Dentistry, The University of Adelaide, Adelaide 5000, Australia 

4 Division of Health Sciences, University of Otago, Dunedin 9016, New Zealand

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