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Expert advice on toddler nutrition and DHA

The Houston Family Examiner recently had the opportunity to talk to Dr. Scott Cohen, practicing pediatrician and bestselling author of the book: Eat, Sleep, Poop: A Common Sense Guide to Your Baby's First Year about the DHA nutrition gap and how parents can can maximize healthy brain development through nutrition.

What are the five things every toddler needs in their diet?

We want to find things that have a lot of vitamins and minerals and compliment their normal nutrition. So, one is DHA, which a lot of people haven’t heard of. DHA is an Omega-3 fatty acid that’s really important in brain growth, cognition. Some studies say it may decrease respiratory infections and allergies. 85% of a child’s brain growth is in the first three years of life. DHA is important for that brain development. Kids unfortunately are only getting about 25% of their daily DHA.

Calcium is important for strong bones, muscles and teeth. A protein source is important. We can get protein from the normal things with think about like meat, fish and eggs. But a lot of toddlers aren’t eating those things. We can also get it from other sources, whether it’s milk or a toddler formula like Enfagrow that has the protein like milk and the added vitamins and minerals and DHA. We can also get it in vegetarian and vegan diets from soy products like tofu, beans and legumes.

Two overall themes when it comes to toddler nutrition:
One is create overall healthy eating habits, which is much more important than volume. What you’re establishing now is what you’re child is going to do later on.

You should sit down, offer a wide variety. Their job is to decide what they’re going to eat. And if they’re not hungry, they’ll get up, they’ll move around and when they get hungry again sit them back down and try again.

And then again, variety. Different colors and shapes of fruits and vegetables, a protein source, a calcium source, and find ways to supplement the few foods they’re going to eat to make them as nutritious as possible.

What is DHA and why do toddlers need it?

They need DHA because the brain grows so rapidly in the first three years. DHA is that important building block for the growing brain. You can get it in your diet from foods. The main source is fish and to a lesser degree eggs. But most kids don’t like fish. So we have to find other ways. There are supplements you can get DHA and then there are other products like Enfagrow which is a toddler formula that have this added DHA in it, which a lot of other milks don’t have and also has some other vitamins like A, B, C, D, E, Iron, Zinc and Calcium. So it’s sort of milk plus multivitamin.

What are some simple solutions for filling the nutrition gaps in a toddler’s diet?

I think it’s finding the complimentary foods. I know, I have two girls. They’re 4 and 6. If they could have mac and cheese, pizza and chicken fingers everyday, they would have it. So as a parent, it’s our job not to offer those everyday. Offer a wide variety even if they’re not going to eat it. If you know your child picks out the vegetables everyday or feeds it to the dog, we don’t stop offering it. We still try and get them to eat foods and find complimentary foods that have the nutrients and vitamins and minerals they need.

What are some other misconceptions about toddlers by first time parents?
They’re going to starve themselves. I think that’s a big misconception. I have never seen in over a decade seen a healthy child who starved themselves or did not gain weight appropriately. The first year of life, everything they eat – breast milk, formula, starting solid foods – everything goes to growing. Their weight gain is about a 45-degree angle on the growth chart and at one year of age, I always show parents the growth curve and show them that the weight basically plateaus. And this happens for two reasons, one it just doesn’t take as much to grow in that second year of life. I joke, you can go off sunlight and air. The other things is they’d rather do anything but sit still and eat. So it’s more important to teach healthy eating habits than worry about volume, offer complimentary foods, offer a wide variety. Don’t worry, your child is going to be OK.

You wrote Eat, Sleep, Poop: A Common Sense Guide to Your Baby’s First Year. What are some key takeaways?

I think common sense parenting. Learn what not to worry about. As a parent, I wrote this during my daughter’s first year of life. I have that new perspective of being a parent. I can give you my medical advice, but now I can say – would I follow it? Did my daughter’s follow it? This perspective is invaluable. And it just shows you that kids end up OK. When you’re a parent and a pediatrician, we all make the same mistakes. Don’t be over anxious. Don’t go on information overload. It’s a dangerous place. It’s hard to read through that information. So what I try to do in Eat, Sleep, Poop is to talk about this is what to worry about and more importantly this is what not to worry about so the next 18-21 years can be as enjoyable as they should be.

About Dr. Scott Cohen: Dr. Cohen is the co-founder of Beverly Hills Pediatrics, where he currently practices. He was awarded Pediatrician of the Year in 2006 and was the recipient of the Physician Recognition Award in Pediatrics in 2005 and 2008 from Cedars Sinai Medical Center, where he is an attending and active member of the teaching staff. Dr. Cohen was also selected as one of the Best Doctors in America 2007-2012.

Our interview is also available via video here.